It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science

THE other week I was working in my garage office when my 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, came in to tell me about Charles Darwin. Did I know that he discovered the theory of evolution after studying finches on the Galápagos Islands? I was steeped in what felt like the 37th draft of my new book, which is on the development of scientific ideas, and she was proud to contribute this tidbit of history that she had just learned in class.
It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science

Image credit: Hudson Christie

THE other week I was working in my garage office when my 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, came in to tell me about Charles Darwin. Did I know that he discovered the theory of evolution after studying finches on the Galápagos Islands? I was steeped in what felt like the 37th draft of my new book, which is on the development of scientific ideas, and she was proud to contribute this tidbit of history that she had just learned in class.

Sadly, like many stories of scientific discovery, that commonly recounted tale, repeated in her biology textbook, is not true.

The popular history of science is full of such falsehoods. In the case of evolution, Darwin was a much better geologist than ornithologist, at least in his early years. And while he did notice differences among the birds (and tortoises) on the different islands, he didn’t think them important enough to make a careful analysis. His ideas on evolution did not come from the mythical Galápagos epiphany, but evolved through many years of hard work, long after he had returned from the voyage. (To get an idea of the effort involved in developing his theory, consider this: One byproduct of his research was a 684-page monograph on barnacles.)

The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin’s success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.

The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.

Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, “The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea … A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.” Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.

Still, you might ask, so what? What happens when we misjudge the scientific process, when we underestimate its complexity?

The oversimplification of discovery makes science appear far less rich and complex than it really is. In the film “The Theory of Everything,” Stephen Hawking is seen staring at glowing embers in a fireplace when he has a vision of black holes emitting heat. In the next scene he is announcing to an astonished audience that, contrary to prior theory, black holes will leak particles, shrink and then explode. But that is not how his discovery happened.

In reality, Mr. Hawking had been inspired not by glowing embers, but by the work of two Russian physicists.

According to their theory, rotating black holes would give off energy, slowing their rotation until they eventually stopped. To investigate this, Mr. Hawking had to perform difficult mathematical calculations that carefully combined the relevant elements of quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of gravity — two mainstays of physics that, in certain respects, are known to contradict each other. Mr. Hawking’s calculations showed, to his “surprise and annoyance,” that stationary black holes also leak.

To a physicist that was a shocking result, as it contradicted the idea that black holes devour matter and energy, but never regurgitate it. To Mr. Hawking, it was especially dismaying, for it lent support to a Princeton physicist’s theory about black hole entropy that he had great disdain for.

So Mr. Hawking attacked his own work, trying to poke holes in it. In the end, after months of calculations, he was forced to accept that his conclusion was correct, and it changed the way physicists think about black holes.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle’s “Physics” was a wide-ranging set of theories that were easy to state and understand. But his ideas were almost completely wrong. Newton’s “Principia” ushered in the age of modern science, but remains one of the most impenetrable books ever written. There is a reason: The truths of nature are subtle, and require deep and careful thought.

Over the past few centuries we have invested that level of thought, and so while in the 19th century the Reuters news service used carrier pigeons to fly stock prices between cities, today we have the Internet.

Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.

But even beyond issues of science, there is a broader lesson to learn, and that was the crux of my reply to my daughter. We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren’t quick, or easy.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project summed up a recent study by saying that the negative effects of today’s ubiquitous media “include a need for instant gratification.” The Darwin, Newton and Hawking of the myths received that instant gratification. The real scientists did not, and real people seldom do.

2 comments

Your book, “The Upright Thinkers” is beautiful! Thank you for writing it. As an author myself, I know how much care and research it goes into producing such a thorough, readable work. I wrote “Cobol Application Debugging Under MVS,” published by McGraw-Hill, along with a number of articles in computer journals many years ago and they consumed several wonderful and rewarding years of my life.

I earned a chemistry degree as an undergraduate followed by a master’s degree in science education. Now retired, I spend much time playing banjo, fiddle, etc. and performing old-time Appalachian music with two CDs to my credit. Quite different from my different previous careers, but very enjoyable.

I look forward to reading your other books and wish you a rewarding future.

I’ve read your “Drunkard’s Walk” book. As a trained scientist who has had careers in biology, physics, and computer science, I have to say that you haven’t given a good scientific definition of “randomness”, including how you would distinguish by observation between a “random” pattern and a “non-random” one. I’ve studied this question carefully since the time 50 years ago when I had to write a “random number generator” in Fortran for a research project. I discovered that I could only write a PSEUDOrandom number generator since all programs are deterministic and thus non-random. Subsequently I found that that it’s mathematically impossible to prove that a particular pattern is either random or non-random. All we can say scientifically is that a particular pattern APPEARS random or non-random at a particular level of observation, and it may appear otherwise at a deeper more informative level. But it’s well known that–at any level–relatively non-random processes can produce patterns that appear random, and the reverse is also true. This issue is of great importance both in biology and in quantum physics, where certain processes are often referred to as “random” when in fact we can’t really say scientifically whether they are or not. If your book deals with these issues I missed it.

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