Slip Sticks and Wrong Theories

Vector hyperbolic log-log slide rule. Click to enlarge.


Oct 25, 2017

A slide rule hangs on the wall of my office, a dual-base vector hyperbolic log-log slide rule.

Editor’s Note: Due to Northern California wildfires, the Picture of the Day will be on a temporary leave of absence. In the interim, please enjoy these articles from the archives. 

A mere 40 years ago it was a state-of-the-art calculating machine. It reminds me that technology progresses not only by incremental improvements but by extinction and speciation: My aluminum slip-stick was an improvement over the wood one I had before, but the scientific calculator I now use is an entirely different animal.

As with technologies, so with theories. The understanding of nature that a theory provides is improved incrementally as the theory is articulated, tested, and revised. The theory’s domain of validity-the set of data it can explain-is explored and the details filled in. But the very activity of exploration discovers data outside the theory’s domain. These unexpected facts (for every theory starts out expecting to explain everything) become anomalies that eventually undermine the theory. A theory is an intellectual tool with the amazing property that as it’s perfected it destroys itself. In analogy with natural selection, the cognitive niche that selects a theory for fitness is itself altered by the theory such that, after a time, a new and different theory is selected.

Thus, a theory’s domain of validity has temporal as well as factual limits. The power of an idea whose time has come is counterpoised by the debility of the idea whose time has gone.

I never use my slide rule, but now and then I take it out of its case simply to admire the beauty of how it works. In much the same fashion, I admire the beauty of Ptolemy’s epicycles and of Copernicus’ helio-concentric circles and of Einstein’s rubberized space-time. I appreciate how each theory worked for its time and its data. I esteem the talent and effort of the people who developed each theory.

My friends chide me for the ensuing reluctance to call old theories “wrong”. I plead that the term is relatively meaningless: On its own terms-within its domain of validity-no theory is “wrong”. And from a historical perspective, every theory sooner or later will be replaced; hence, every theory is “wrong”. But I must accede to my friends’ pragmatism: We don’t live in the past or in the future. We live in this present time, and this time is the domain of right and wrong.

It would be wrong to insist on using a slide rule to direct Cassini around Saturn’s moons. Just so, it’s wrong for Established Science to refuse to look at Arp’s findings of quantized intrinsic redshifts. Just so, it’s wrong to overlook Juergen’s insights into the electrical nature of the sun. It’s wrong to ignore Alfven’s admonition that plasmas don’t behave the way theoreticians believe and that there are large-scale currents in space. It’s wrong to dismiss the Thunderbolts of the Gods as “merely myth” in blind defiance of the intelligibility in the data. Turning a deaf ear, a blind eye, and a closed mind to this astronomical mass of evidence is intellectually irresponsible.

The domain of data has expanded immensely since Established Theories first became established. The early flakes of mysterious data have become an avalanche of anomalies. There are many facts that don’t fit Established Theory; there are many facts that contradict Established Theory. Established Theory is increasingly fragmented. It’s losing coherence and generality in a proliferation of ad hoc adjustments for every new situation. It’s straying into fantasy lands of big bangs and little black holes. It denies the existence of 90% of the universe then fills the void with invisible matter and ion winds. It slaps a smug hand to its back and overlooks its own history. It disdains its own mortality.

The intellectual niche that Established Theory so comfortably fit has already changed, leaving only a residual feeling of comfort. But the feeling is false, and both the “fit” AND the theory are wrong.

Mel Acheson

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