Failures and breakthroughs – exposed, reflected, considered

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Some historic fails of science and technology

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Historically, science and technology have gone along many routes which turned out to be dead-ends.

Science has many discredited theories and obsolete paradigms such as alchemy, phlogiston, universal ether, and more.  They failed the reality test and were cast aside, occasionally turning up in fantasy stories and crackpot websites. Some scientists use science to explain/interpret social and cultural phenomena. Sam Harris, for example, says (completely ignoring the spiritual, cultural and social aspects) the religion “is indeed failed science” and expresses hope that information, education and science will rectify this situation. In the modern world  even  renowned scientists are prone to making claims and predictions, which cannot be substantiated. An interesting case in point is Paul Ehrlich, a world-renowned entomologist whose failed predictions about environment (for example “There is no evidence that global warming is real“) are still resoundingly discrediting relevant scientific research and available empirical data. There are even cases (controversy surrounding discovery of element 118) when scientists deliberately fabricate fake data to support their theories and claims.

Technology has a bit more wiggle room but is still full of false/failed predictions and intentions.  Some technologies were perfectly viable from an engineering standpoint, but either couldn’t compete economically or never really had a market.  The canonical example is airships.  With abandoned technologies there’s always the suspicion that if things had turned out differently we might be driving atomic cars or be regular tourists on the spacecraft Cycler commuting between Mars and the Earth or some other high-end, futuristic sci-fi-inspired gig. Douglas Self‘s Museum of Retro Technology contains information on dozens of devices, which existed, but never became part of everyday life.

Failed technologies are different from completely bogus technology.  We’ll never get power from a Keely Motor and we will most probably be unable to  make mainstream steam-powered airplanes because they either had high costs related to manufacturing or unprepared markets or could simply not compete with more conventional designs.

But all these false roads and blank directions were not taken in vain.  If you take a look at major inventions and discoveries in science and technology you will see that most, if not all, happened by merry happenstance (radioactivity theory by Marie Curie), unanticipated development (Arpanet and Internet) or in the course of pursuing a plainly different objective (serendipitous case of discovering penicillin by Alexander Fleming).

Some eponymies in science

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In history, it is rare that scientist achieve notoriety and fame during their lifetimes. If they nonetheless do, they get credit and lasting recognition by having a scientific discovery named after them.

However, there happen to be wrong naming attributions. Indeed, naming disputes are so common that there is even a rule of thumb called the Zeroth theorem, which states that eponymous discoveries are, more often than not, wrongly attributed. Appropriately enough, the theorem is also known as Stigler’s law of eponymy even though it was originally formulated by Robert Merton.

Below are few examples.

Antonio Meucci – who despite developing the first telephone spent his whole life in poverty (“if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell”), while Alexander Graham Bell got all the glory.

Alan Turing – whose huge strides in the conception of the first generation of computers (his work for the Colossus computer, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer) were destined to never to be fully attributed to him, due to his untimely death.

Nikola Tesla – who died almost totally penniless, while the ideas he had put forward for radio (he demonstrated a wireless communication – radio – in 1894) made Guglielmo Marconi (who received Nobel Prize in Physics for radio in 1909) a fortune.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck – who correctly surmised that living things evolved, over sixty years before Charles Darwin publicized the fact, but was to die in ignominy with his ideas not appreciated (but tacitly considered by Darwin in his On Origin Of Species).

Geoffrey Dummer – whose musings on the development of the integrated circuit preceded those of Bob Noyce and Jack Kilby by almost a decade, but due to lack of vision by the British Government his plans were never to make it off the drawing board.

Joseph Swan – who despite having the technical expertise that allowed him to design the first workable electric light bulb, was no match for the commercial machinations of adversary Thomas Edison.

Johann Loschmidt – an Austrian scientist who calculated in 1865 the number of molecules in a mole but it was Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro, whose name became associated with the number.

Albert Neisser – who discovered leprosy (officially known as Hansen’s disease, in honour of the Norwegian physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered the bacterium responsible but did not manage to cultivate it, or show that it was truly linked to leprosy), and who obtained from Hansen a large set of samples from people with leprosy. Neisser succeeded in staining the bacterium and, in 1880, announced that he had discovered the cause of leprosy. Hansen wrote a lengthy article about his own research for a conference on leprosy, which credited him, not Niesser, for the discovery.

Robert Hooke – Who postulated, amongst other things, the true nature of planetary motion, only to witness his rival Isaac Newton take all the praise for it.

Sources: New Scientist, ECNmag

Written by Hayk

October 11, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Failures of the theory of Darwin (part 1)

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Evolution theory devised by Darwin is generally considered one of the most important intellectual achievements of the modern age. The theory allegedly put an end to hitherto existing speculations purporting to explain evolution of humanity and life on earth. In 1859, when the Origin of Species was first published, it did not directly reference humans nor made any claims of our common ancestry with other mammals. Ever since and with increasing knowledge in spheres of anthropology, genetics and biology, modern scientists came to hold it not as a possible conjecture (a sound theory with many explanations of empiric data) but as universal truth about the human life on earth. Currently, two main version of evolution theory exist: phyletic gradualism (uniformity and gradual transformation) and punctuated equilibrium (slight changes with final leap).

However till now, the theory failed to exhaustively explain or address a number of open questions and and issues:

1. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, considered it  logical to extend the theory to cognition, when he considered human characteristics such as morality or emotions to have been evolved, introducing evolutionary psychology. It holds that human nature was designed by natural selection in the Pleistocene epoch and aims to apply evolutionary theory to the human mind. It proposes that the mind consists of cognitive modules that evolved in response to selection pressures faced by our Stone Age ancestors. In the recent research conducted by authorities on the topic, Buller (in his book Adapting Minds) and  Richardson (in his book Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology) show that neither the methodology nor the results of evolutionary psychology can be justified scientifically.

2. An apparent lack of “evolutionary” effect on bacteria (new generation: 12 mins to 24 hours) and fruit flies (new generation: 9 days) with unlimited number of genetic mutations and variations. Evolution theory must have had even a bigger effect on those because of a recently introduced model, which suggests that body size and temperature combine to control the overall rate of evolution through their effects on metabolism (smaller organisms evolve faster and are more diverse than larger organisms).

3. On rare and random occasions a mutation in DNA improves a creature’s ability to survive, so it is more likely to reproduce (natural selection). But it is widely known that there are very few human treats, which were tracked to one gene (sicknesses like the Dracula Gene and the Cheeseburger Gene). Modern science currently holds that most of even simplest of human treats, features and behavioral patterns have underlying sophisticated molecular and genetic mechanisms. Therefore it is doubtful natural selection could favor parts that did not have all their components existing in place, connected, and regulated because the parts would not work.

4. The Cambrian/Precambrian time period does not support Darwinian evolution. There are no intermediate (transitional forms) found during this period. There appear to be no fossil ancestors for complex invertebrates or fish.

5. The theory of evolution seems to be in violation of two fundament laws: second law of thermodynamics (things fall apart over time, they do not get more organized) and law of biogenesis (living cells divide to make new cells, and fertilized eggs and seeds develop into animals and plants, but chemicals don’t fall together and life appears).

To be continued some time soon..

Written by Hayk

September 24, 2008 at 4:34 pm