They laughed at Galileo

Some of the comments on my last post reminded me of a common bit of science mythology, namely the idea that scientific advances come from lone geniuses who overthrow the existing orthodoxy, after years of ridicule and dismissal by the scientific establishment.  There are two things to remember about this idea:

1. To a truly excellent approximation, this never happens.  It’s just not how science generally works. In the modern era, Wegener and continental drift is about the only example I can think of that might count,  but I know essentially nothing about the history of that subject, so I can’t say. It certainly is not true, for instance, that they laughed at Einstein: his ideas were recognized as important and worthy of serious consideration pretty much right away.

2. Even if it does occasionally happen that lone geniuses who are ridiculed by the establishment have great ideas, the converse doesn’t follow: people who are ridiculed by the establishment aren’t necessarily lone geniuses with great ideas.  As Carl Sagan put it a long time ago, they laughed at Galileo, they laughed at the Wright brothers, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

The history of science has very few crazy ideas that turned out to be right, in comparison with the number of crazy ideas that turned out to be crazy.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “They laughed at Galileo”

  1. I never liked Bozo the Clown. Too many horror novels with clowns. So where does that leave Dr. Mills of Blacklight power?

    Admitted by his harshest critics to be highly intelligent, claimed by his old chemistry professor to have an edetic memory, trained in the medical sciences and related fields, took his original “eureka” moment from a physics paper by his EE professor on the classical basis for radiation of the free electron laser and applied that to his classical model of the electron itself, built up his company with 40+ employees and consultants, while on the side patenting a targeted molecular cancer treatment.

    He doesn’t read like the usual lone “genius” building magnetic motors, cold fusion cells, Tilley’s magical rechargers, and vacuum energy extractors and the like in his garage- none of which has any working theory behind it, nor experiment nor a testable working prototype.

    Heck, in 99% of the cases you’d be justified in rejecting new theories and such claims out of hand. This guy stands out as different. Whether he is right depends not on laughter and having the numbers, it depends on cold hard evidence and that’s what he appears to be providing.

    You’re probably not going to like what his theory tells him about the cosmic background radiation either.

  2. The myth of lone wolf heretic is a really entrenched one. For a good reason too – it’s because that’s the way we teach science! It’s a lot easier to entertain a classroom with a story about a heretic than it is about another plodder with advancing science incrementally. (And I’m not saying this just because I’m your brother).

  3. If you hunt around a little more, you will find more examples where it is, indeed, an outsider, so-to-speak, who discovers something new. The case I am thinking of is the person who discovered bacteria cause stomach ulcers. I agree that it is rare, but then I think Thomas Kuhn wrote a rather interesting book on the topic ….

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