Why is there no Disruptive Science Being Published?

One paper (Park et al. Nature 613: pp 138) that caught my attention over the post-Christmas period made the proposition that scientific papers are getting less disruptive over time, until now, in the physical sciences, there is essentially very little disruption currently. First, what do I mean by disruption? To me, this is a publication that is at cross-purposes with established thought. Thus the recent claim there is no sterile neutrino is at best barely disruptive because the existence of it was merely a “maybe” solution to another problem. So why has this happened? One answer might be we know everything so there is neither room nor need for disruption. I can’t accept that. I feel that scientists do not wish to change: they wish to keep the current supply of funds coming their way. Disruptive papers keep getting rejected because what reviewer who has spent decades on research want to let through a paper that essentially says he is wrong? Who is the peer reviewer for a disruptive paper?

Let me give a personal example. I made a few efforts to publish my theory of planetary formation in scientific journals. The standard theory is that the accretion disk dust formed planetesimals by some totally unknown mechanism, and these eventually collided to form planets. There is a small industry in running computer simulations of such collisions. My paper was usually rejected, the only stated reason being it did not have computer simulations. However, the proposition was that the growth was caused chemically and used the approximation there were no collisions. There was no evidence the reviewer read the paper past the absence of mention of simulations in the abstract. No comment about the fact here was the very first mechanism stated as to how accretion started and with a testable mathematical relationship regarding planetary spacing.

If that is bad, there is worse. The American Physical Society has published a report of a survey relating to ethics (Houle, F. H., Kirby, K. P. & Marder, M. P. Physics Today 76, 28 (2023). In a 2003 survey, 3.9% of early physicists admitted that they had been required to falsify data, or they did it anyway, to get to publication faster, to get more papers. By 2020, that number has risen to 7.3%. Now, falsifying data will only occur to get the result that fits in with standard thinking, because if it doesn’t, someone will check it.

There is an even worse problem: that of assertion. The correct data is obtained, any reasonable interpretation will say it contradicts the standard thinking, but it is reported in a way that makes it appear to comply. This will be a bit obscure for some, but I shall try to make it understandable. The paper is: Maerker, A.; Roberts, J. D. J. Am. Chem.Soc. 1966, 88, 1742-1759. At the time there was a debate whether cyclopropane could delocalize electrons. Strange effects were observed and there were two possible explanations: (1) it did delocalize electrons; (2) there were electric field effects. The difference was that both would stabilize positive charge on an adjacent centre, but the electric field effects would be opposite if the charge was opposite. So while it was known that putting a cyclopropyl ring adjacent to a cationic centre stabilized it, what happened to an anionic centre? The short answer is that most efforts to make R – (C-) – Δ, where Δ means cyclopropyl failed, whereas R – (C-) – H is easy to make. Does that look as if we are seeing stabilization? Nevertheless, if we put the cyclopropyl group on a benzylic carbon by changing R to a phenyl group φ so we have φ – (C-) – Δ an anion was just able to be made if potassium was the counter ion. Accordingly it was stated that the fact the anion was made was attributed to the stabilizing effect of cyclopropyl. No thought was given to the fact that any chemist who cannot make the benzyl anion φ – (C-) – H should be sent home in disgrace. One might at least compare like with like, but not apparently if you would get the answer you don’t want. What is even more interesting is that this rather bizarre conclusion has gone unremarked (apart from by me) since then.

This issue was once the source of strong debate, but a review came out and “settled” the issue. How? By ignoring every paper that disagreed with it, and citing the authority of “quantum mechanics”. I would not disagree that quantum mechanics is correct, but computations can be wrong. In this case, they used the same  computer programmes that “proved” the exceptional stability of polywater. Oops. As for the overlooked papers, I later wrote a review with a logic analysis. Chemistry journals do not publish logic analyses. So in my view, the reason there are no disruptive papers in the physical sciences is quite clear: nobody really wants them. Not enough to ask for them.

Finally, some examples of papers that in my opinion really should have  done better. Weihs et al. (1998) arXiv:quant-ph/9810080 v1 claimed to demonstrate clear violations of Bell’s inequality, but the analysis involved only 5% of the photons? What happened to the other 95% is not disclosed. The formation of life is critically dependent on reduced chemicals being available. A large proportion of ammonia was found in ancient seawater trapped in rocks at Barberton (de Ronde et al. Geochim.  Cosmochim. Acta 61: 4025-4042.) Thus information critical for an understanding of biogenesis was obtained, but the information was not even mentioned in the abstract or in keywords, so it is not searchable by computer. This would have disrupted the standard thinking of the ancient atmosphere, but nobody knew about it. In another paper, spectroscopy coupled with the standard theory predicted strong bathochromic shifts (to longer wavelengths) for a limited number of carbenium ions, but strong hypsochromic shifts were observed without comment (Schmitze, L. R.; Sorensen, T. S. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1982, 104, 2600-2604.) So why was no fuss made about these things by the discoverers? Quite simply, they wanted to be in with the crowd. Be good, get papers, get funded. Don’t rock the boat! After all, nature does not care whether we understand or not.


Roman Concrete

I hope all of you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and 2023 is shaping up well for you. They say the end of the year is a time to look back, so why not look really back? Quite some time ago, I visited Rome, and I have always been fascinated by the Roman civilization, so why not start this year by looking that far back?

Perhaps one of the more rather remarkable buildings is the Pantheon, which has the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. That was built under the direction of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the “get-things-done” man for Augustus. No reinforcement, and it lasted that long. Take a look at modern concrete and as often as not you will find it cracks and breaks up. Concrete is a mix of aggregate (stones and sand) that provides the bulk, and a cement that binds the aggregate together. We use Portland cement, which is made by heating limestone and clay (usually with some other material but the other material is not important) in a kiln up to about 1450 degrees Centigrade. The product actually depends to some extent on what the clay is, but the main products are bellite (Ca2SiO4) and alite (Ca3SiO5). If the clays contain aluminium, which most clays do, various calcium aluminosilicates are formed. Most standard cement is mainly calcium silicate to which a little gypsum is added at the end, which makes the end surface smoother.

Exactly what happens during setting is unknown. The first thing to note is that stone does not have a smooth surface at close to the molecular level, and further, stones are silicates, in which the polymer structure is perforce terminated at the surface. That would mean there are incomplete bonds. An element like carbon would fix this problem by forming double bonds but silicon cannot do that so these “awkward” surface molecules react with water to form hydroxides. What I think happens is the water in the mix hydrolyses the calcium silicate and forms silica with surface hydroxyls, and these eliminate with hydroxyls on the stone, with the calcium hydroxide also taking part, in effect forming microscopic junctions between it and stone. All of this is slow, particularly when polymeric solids cannot move easily. So to make a good concrete, besides getting the correct mix you have to let it cure for quite some time before it is at its best.

So what did the Romans do? They could not make cement by heating clay and lime up to that temperature easily, but there were sources where it was done for them: the silicate around volcanoes like Vesuvius. The Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius used a hot mix of quicklime (calcium oxide) that was hydrated and mixed with volcanic tephra. Interestingly, this will also introduce some magnesiosilicates, which are themselves cements, but magnesium may fit better than calcium onto basaltic material. For aggregate Vitruvius used fist-sized pieces of rock, including “squared red stone or brick or lava laid down in courses”. In short, Vitruvius was selecting aggregate that was much better than ordinary stone in the sense of having surface hydroxyl groups to react. That Roman concrete lasted so long may in part be due to a better choice of aggregate.

A second point was the use of hot mixing. One possibility is they used a mix of freshly slaked lime and quicklime and by freshly slaking the mix became very hot. This speeds up chemical reactions, and also allows compound formation that is not possible at low temperatures. By reacting so hot it reduced setting times. But even more interestingly, it appears to allow self-healing. If cracks begin to form, they are more likely to form around lime clasts, which can then react with water to make a calcium-rich solution, which can react with pozzolanic components to strengthen the composite material. To support this, Admir Masic, who had been studying Roman cement, made concretes using the Roman recipe and a modern method. He then deliberately cracked the samples and ran water through them. The Roman cement self-healed completely within two weeks, while the cracks in the modern cement never healed.