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Lessons from Planet Vulcan Unlearned

Lessons from Planet Vulcan Unlearned

By Wednesday, 17 January 2018 08:42 AM Current | Bio | Archive

At the dawn of the 20th century Lord Kelvin was commiserating about future luckless generations since he reckoned "there was nothing new to discover in physics." We may be at first a bit stunned that modern science could even entertain such thoughts circa 1899, but recurrent dismissals of everything the discipline has ever learned since the origin of the scientific method five centuries ago isn’t a bizarre feature of just the twilight of the 19th century.

For all the grandiose talk of relying solely on experimentation, observation, and acid tests — in a free, open and public forum, with no predisposition to dogma either scientific, religious, or political — the history of science in the last 100 years has indeed deviated from that hallowed norm from time to time. Declarations as incomprehensible as the revered baron’s above are still heard — even now.

Science can indeed be sent off the rails when jingoism and lazy thinking supplant unbiased investigation, trial, error, and hard fact. The history of aviation is an excellent case in point.

Of the Wright Brothers’ five witnesses present at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for example, not one was a scientist or a journalist. Even the iconic first flight photographic evidence wasn’t enough for half the newspapers in the U.S. (which refused to run the image) because they and everyone else had been badgered ceaselessly to believe unquestioningly in the then orthodox dogma that "if God had wanted man to fly he’d have given him wings."

Likewise, decades later the scientific community stubbornly scoffed at famed pilot Wiley Post’s insistence that jet streams existed — until the empire of Japan employed them to send thousands of balloon bombs wafting across the Pacific Ocean toward landfall in the Pacific Northwest during World War II.

The term "sound barrier" too barely had time to make it into the lexicon before it was shattered by Chuck Yeager, who put far more stock in finding out than in listening to theories about why things could or couldn’t be done.

The experts have made some monumental gaffes to rival Lord Kelvin’s — and yet they occasionally still cozy up even now to pet theories long on assumption yet short on proof.

Dark matter is an excellent contender for just such a violation of the scientific method; it could be a repeat of the previous blundering quick-draw answer theorists haphazardly snatched the last time something was measured in space that wasn’t moving as expected: the planet Mercury.

As early as 1859 a slight but gnawing anomaly concerning Mercury’s orbit confounded astronomers. Rather than dare to consider that something was amiss with classical Newtonian physics, telescopes across the world were trained for years searching for the planet Vulcan — which must have been there, interposed between Mercury and the Sun — the body that surely was perturbing the ephemeris of Mercury.

As it turned out, the fact was that as close as Mercury is to the massive sun, relativistic effects are at play and Newton’s gravitational laws simply weren’t good enough. We know now that Einstein’s view is the more correct explanation of how gravity actually works thanks in part to Mercury’s disobedient precession of perihelia being solved properly.

In the 1970’s something else was discovered that wasn’t moving as it ought to be: galaxies. They spin too quickly. Galaxies are revolving at such speeds that there is insufficient mass to account for the gravity that somehow is keeping the peripheries from being flung off into space. Once again science was poised to revisit whether every scintilla of what we think we know about gravity is absolutely correct.

The pain-free route though was to add up how much extra mass must be ensconced within a halo of untouchable, invisible, inexplicable, unknowable "dark matter," declare it there and just in that amount, and voila, everything would then be back to how it should be. It’s tidy — but it’s also untestable, improvable, and thoroughly unscientific. It’s the Vulcan explanation, yet only exponentially more self-assured, since the last time astronomers at least went about the task of attempting to find their evidence.

There are though scientists still doggedly true to their discipline, reluctant to join bandwagons christening impossible to qualify theories as slam-dunk facts. A recent issue of the esteemed Astrophysical Journal (November, 2017) features physics laureate Andre Maeder’s paper focusing on scale invariance to explain the speed of galaxies, and without requiring the existence of a single particle of dark matter. Other scientists have proposed other theories as well.

Nobody is certain if dark matter truly exists — including those who pretend to be. It’s a chilling commentary on our age however that in legal, social, civic, and scientific matters society seems determined to feign that everything must be somehow known, even as the reverse is so patently obvious.

David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.


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Nobody is certain if dark matter truly exists — including those who pretend to be. It’s a chilling commentary on our age however that in legal, social, civic, and scientific matters society seems determined to feign that everything must be somehow known, even as the reverse is so patently obvious.
kelvin, wright, yaeger
Wednesday, 17 January 2018 08:42 AM
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