Karela Fry

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The fear of being right

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Reuters has put together a very nice article on this year’s Nobel prize in chemistry:

[F]our centuries after Galileo, charges of heresy from their peers and dread of being cast into a wilderness of ridicule and shame still haunt those pioneers who strike out beyond the frontiers of established science to win Nobel prizes.

Penrose tiling: quasicrystalline order

Dan Shechtman’s chemistry Nobel this week for discovering quasicrystals was sweet vindication after years being branded a “quasi-scientist” by one of the greatest names in his field. New laureates in physics and medicine also told of fear after making revolutionary discoveries or of good ideas left long overlooked.

Galileo was grilled by the Inquisition in Rome in the 17th century and branded a heretic by the church for promoting Copernicus’s idea that the Earth moved round the Sun.

Today it is loss of grants and public humiliation that gives sleepless nights to those whose studies force a rewrite of accepted laws of nature, like the astronomers who found the universe’s expansion was speeding up, not slowing down.

“It seemed too crazy to be right, and I think we were a little scared,” said Brian Schmidt after winning the 2011 Nobel physics prize for a discovery which also revealed the likely existence of mysterious dark energy, or anti-gravity — an idea Einstein once had and later dismissed as his “biggest blunder”.

While scientific advances don’t always involve disruptive and counter-intuitive ideas, very often the biggest ones do — and the task of the scientific community is to stress test these ideas to breaking-point.

Bassam Shakhashiri, president-elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS), says that’s the nature of the game.

“That’s how we do science,” he told Reuters. “We scrutinise, we contemplate, we look at evidence, we debate with each other about the consistency of the evidence and how it makes sense.”

The ACS lauded Shechtman’s “a great work of discovery” this week, when his Nobel prize was announced.

Yet in the 1980s and early 1990s it was a one-time president of the ACS, the double Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, who was the fiercest critic of Shechtman’s research, saying: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

For those researchers whose work is at odds with the established dogma, life is not easy.

“Of course scientists, being people, need to be convinced about revolutionary advances more than incremental advances,” Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told Reuters. “That’s how science proceeds: Prove it to me. If you can’t prove it, it remains a bad idea.”

Shechtman said he was all too aware of the high stakes in the years before the world’s crystallography textbooks were rewritten in his favour: “I knew that if it turned out to be a flop, it would be a major flop,” he said.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

October 8, 2011 at 5:50 am

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