Scientific low points: (1)

A question that should be asked more often is, do scientists make mistakes? Of course they do. The good news, however, is that when it comes to measuring something, they tend to be meticulous, and published measurements are usually correct, or, if they matter, they are soon found out if they are wrong. There are a number of papers, of course, where the findings are complicated and not very important, and these could well go for a long time, be wrong, and nobody would know. The point is also, nobody would care.

On the other hand, are the interpretations of experimental work correct? History is littered with examples of where the interpretations that were popular at the time are now considered a little laughable. Once upon a time, and it really was a long time ago, I did a post doctoral fellowship at The University, Southampton, and towards the end of the year I was informed that I was required to write a light-hearted or amusing article for a journal that would come out next year. (I may have had one put over me in this respect because I did not see the other post docs doing much.) Anyway, I elected to comply, and wrote an article called Famous Fatuous Failures.

As it happened, this article hardly became famous, but it was something of a fatuous failure. The problem was, I finished writing it a little before I left the country, and an editor got hold of it. In those days you wrote with pen on paper, unless you owned a typewriter, but when you are travelling from country to country, you tend to travel light, and a typewriter is not light. Anyway, the editor decided my spelling of a two French scientists’ names (Berthollet and Berthelot) was terrible and it was “obviously” one scientist. The net result was there was a section where there was a bitter argument, with one of them arguing with himself. But leaving that aside, I had found that science was continually “correcting” itself, but not always correctly.

An example that many will have heard of is phlogiston. This was a weightless substance that metals and carbon gave off to air, and in one version, such phlogisticated air was attracted to and stuck to metals to form a calx. This theory got rubbished by Lavoisier, who showed that the so-called calxes were combinations of the metal with oxygen, which was part of the air. A great advance? That is debatable. The main contribution of Lavoisier was he invented the analytical balance, and he decided this was so accurate there would be nothing that was “weightless”. There was no weight for phlogiston therefore it did not exist. If you think of this, if you replace the word “phlogiston” with “electron” you have an essential description of the chemical ionic bond, and how do you weigh an electron? Of course there were other versions of the phlogiston theory, but getting rid of that version may we’ll have held chemistry back for quite some time.

Have we improved? I should add that many of my cited failures were in not recognizing, or even worse, not accepting truth when shown. There are numerous examples where past scientists almost got there, but then somehow found a reason to get it wrong. Does that happen now? Since 1970, apart from cosmic inflation, as far as I can tell there have been no substantially new theoretical advances, although of course there have been many extensions of previous work. However, that may merely mean that some new truths have been uncovered, but nobody believes them so we know nothing of them. However, there have been two serious bloopers.

The first was “cold fusion”. Martin Fleischmann, a world-leading electrochemist, and Stanley Pons decided that if deuterium was electrolyzed under appropriate conditions you could get nuclear fusion. They did a range of experiments with palladium electrodes, which would strongly adsorb the deuterium, and sometimes they got unexplained but significant temperature rises. Thus they claimed they got nuclear fusion at room temperature. They also claimed to get helium and neutrons. The problem with this experiment was that they themselves admitted that whatever it was only worked occasionally; at other times, the only heat generated corresponded to the electrical power input. Worse, even when it worked, it would be for only so long, and that electrode would never do it again, which is perhaps a sign that there was some sort of impurity in their palladium that gave the heat from some additional chemical reaction.

What happened next was nobody could repeat their results. The problem then was that being unable to repeat a result when it is erratic at best may mean very little, other than, perhaps, better electrodes did not have the impurity. Also, the heat they got raised the temperature of their solutions from thirty to fifty degrees Centigrade. That would mean that at best, very few actual nuclei fused. Eventually, it was decided that while something might have happened, it was not nuclear fusion because nobody could get the required neutrons. That in turn is not entirely logical. The problem is that fusion should not occur because there was no obvious way to overcome the Coulomb repulsion between nuclei, and it required palladium to do “something magic”. If in fact palladium could do that, it follows that the repulsion energy is not overcome by impact force. If there were some other way to overcome the repulsive force, there is no reason why the nuclei would not form 4He, because that is far more stable than 3He, and if so, there would be no neutrons. Of course I do not believe palladium would overcome that electrical repulsion, so there would be no fusion possible.

Interestingly, the chemists who did this experiment and believed it would work protected themselves with a safety shield of Perspex. The physicists decided it had no show, but they protected themselves with massive lead shielding. They knew what neutrons were. All in all, a rather sad ending to the career of a genuinely skillful electrochemist.

More to follow.

11 thoughts on “Scientific low points: (1)

  1. I remember getting excited by the cold fusion story. Part of the problem with things like this is they are prematurely released to the public, there’s “buzz,” and when the idea is tested and fails, many suspect a hoax, which ruins reputations.

  2. Beyond false scientific results, there is the larger problem of lack of imagination (something neither you nor me are deprived of…).
    Turns out that I came across a so-far-prior unsuggested way to tangle with the famous 2-slit experiment:

    A top paleontologist friend of mine told me yesterday that the fact nobody thought of it before was zero surprising, as people think as if they were on rails. For a correct scientific career, it’s much safer to repeat and visit well-known alleys of thought…

      • Smallest transistors are at 5 nanometers… So we have to wait perhaps a few more years…

        Logically a hydrogen molecule at absolute zero should point towards the self-interfering mass passing through the 2 slit. A STM microscope should be able to detect the motion of the H2 molecule when it feels the gravitational pull. Don’t forget bodies as large as 5000 hydrogen atoms have interfered successfully through the 2 slit.already….

        My point, anyway, is that this observation (“WHAT HAPPENS TO MASS DURING 2 SLIT?”) stands the whole theory of the relationship between Quantum and Relativity and REALITY on its head. It makes the Quantum waves real!

    • Patrice, I have always argued the article goes through one slit and there is a physical wave. The problem is, my suggestion requires the wave to have a defined energy (as opposed to Bohm’s quantum potential that is unchanged by multiplying it by a factor) and you cannot detect it. That energy, as an aside, is a consequence of my requirement that the wave reaches the slit at the same time (more or less) as the particle; the phase velocity = E/p, which requires E = mv^2. Unfortunately, the kinetic energy of the particle is mv^2/2. That has some weird consequences, and there is reason why it is undetectable by ordinary means (conservation laws, because interacting with the wave cannot be done independently of the particle). However, i doubt too many will like that.

      • Well you then agree with Yarik Aharonov and Al. (in recent 2017 work quoted in my essay), and all those who believe in particles. There are plenty of them. Including Einstein, who got it it all started.

        Also those who believe in so-called “WEAK Quantum Measurement” are in that camp. Let’s call it the classical camp.

        However, I don’t. I believe a much greater scientific revolution is at hand. I believe the particle delocalizes, becoming a spreading-out wave (before the collapse, when it does the exact opposite). At least the particles I would call “elementary” delocalize (that extends to some pretty hefty molecules, as long as they can self-interfere in an observable way).

        My point is that this can now be found experimentally. Whether there is delocalization (as in the EPR), or not!

        It would seem strange to me that there can be delocalization as in the EPR, on sometimes fantastic distances, but then none in the rather compact world of the 2-slit.

    • Patrice, your reference by Aharanov is certainly interesting – I have to think a bit more about this. However, as for the weak measurement camp, yes, I guess I am in that thanks to [Kocsis, S. and 6 others. 2011. Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer Science 332: 1170 – 1173.] It happens to fit in nicely with my guidance wave interpretation, so please forgive me for agreeing with something that support say predictions. As it happens, I also disagree with the logic of the analysis of the rotating polariser experiments – in my opinion, simply rotating the apparatus does not generate two new variables.

      • dear Ian: I do lots of things here, and sometimes I have to use authority of past-me onto present-me, because I have no time to go back and re-analyze things. At some point I got excited by weak measurements, and “photon trajectories”, but, when I looked into it more carefully, I found the thing empty. So I will leave at that.

        My meta-reason is this: we need a guiding mechanism, if we believe in the real wave. And, or, believe there is something there, a mass (-energy). I don’t see how a particle can be guided. De Broglie had his double solution mechanism (whatever that is). My position is a single, unstable nonlinear wave (nonlinear waves are intrinsically unstable). Sometimes it spreads, sometimes it contracts.

        OK, some folks in Paris ran experiments where an oil drop is guided by wave-interference field. But it’s basically what I am talking about. The wave-interference field is generated somehow, but its energy dwarves that of the oil drop. In the Quantum case, the wave-interference field is generated by the “particle” itself (most but not all the time, as in two laser interference). That means much, if not most, of the wave-interference field (corresponding to Bohm Quantum potential) came out of the particle (by my suggested nonlinear mechanism, I reckon…).

      • Patrice, in my case, the mechanism for the guidance is that there is an energy field accompanying the particle, which arises from he requirement that the wave keeps up with the particle. The total energy ends up as mv^2, which is twice the kinetic energy, therefore the equivalent of the energy is in the wave. Now, if we assume the energy density depends on the displacement of the wave from the zero, the particle follows an energy gradient, which happens to attract it to the antinode. Whether this is correct is a matter of opinion, but it does have the advantage of generating a very neat way of calculating energies o the stationary states in a chemical bond, which is why I followed this path.

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