Science Rests On The Masses, Not Just Giants.



It turns out that the OPERA “observation” of Faster Than Light neutrinos seems to have been caused by a not-fully-screwed-on right optical cable.

(It’s fascinating that the pitfall had not been detected earlier: because we use electronic computers, not photonic computers, information down an optical cable has to be transformed into electrons, and, because we are still at a gross point of technology, that means plenty of optical energy has to ramp up, until enough electrons can be excited, and generate a signal. If screwing is not right, the ramping up of power takes longer… Hence the infamous delay!)

Too bad. But let’s not forget we have neutrinos from a supernova that arrived several hours before the photons. However, that’s explained by supernova explosion theory: as the explosion proceeds, light gets bottled inside star material for a while, whereas the neutrinos of the intense thermonuclear explosion involving heavy elements rush out; in the sun, thermonuclear photons take hundreds of thousands of year to get out of the thermonuclear region, in the core, where they are produced. So it looks as if I will have to hold my faster than light horses a while back longer. Yet, Einstein’s own theory of gravitation, especially when cosmologically modified, means that the speed of light is all too relative…

(Physics) Professor Matts Strassler asks on his (excellent) blog, a “Question to Laypersons: Your Views on the Neutrino Saga.”

This was the occasion for me to roll a few of my pet themes. (I have to relax with rather innocent considerations as I prepare an essay bound to make me many new friends, where I compare Arabized regimes to Vichy style regimes, just worse, that have perdured, for more than 13 centuries…)

“Prof” Strassler “would like to ask YOU a question or two.  And by “you”, I mean non-scientists.  I would like to know how seeing this episode unfold changed (or did not change) your view of science, or physics, or particle physics…  Are you disappointed in or pleased with the scientific process as you saw it unfold?  Are you more suspicious of or less suspicious of scientists and/or of science now that you’ve seen this happen? I think these are things that many scientists would be curious to learn.”

I commented this way: Don’t we all know quite a bit of science? … Say relative to, hmmm, Newton? We are living in a scientific society, whether we admit it or not.

By the time of Newton it was not know that there was such a thing as oxygen, it supported life, and oxidized stuff. That was a century after Newton’s apogee. Many a commoner not having formally studied science out of high school could reconstitute Lavoisier’s experiments nowadays.

Similarly for Pasteur’s experiences on spontaneous generation or… pasteurization.  And the idea of vaccination, formalized by Pasteur is also well known. As is continental drift.

You can go in the middle of Africa, meet a woman who does not know how to read, but she may well known Pasteurization… and why.

The basic ideas of the Quantum are less well known, true.

However this is partly the result of an anti-French bias, because the luminously simple idea of the French medievalist, prince de Broglie, is not taught, and, instead, Germano-Nazi physicists, such as Heisenberg, with their appropriately dark mumblings, are always evoked by those perhaps nostalgic of the Aryan, anti-French order… But I digress… As far as I am concerned, just like Einstein sucked Poincare’ dry, so did Heisenberg and Schrodinger with De Broglie (not to say they were not great scientists; just smaller, with smaller ideas; thus erroneously teaching the small for great has real consequences on… mass science, the science the masses know!)

But let’s go back to the ideas of Prof Strassler, which are shared with many scientists, namely that they stand on the shoulders of giants just like themselves, as they are a race of giants.

That’s how this fool of Chu got into supporting stupid (and intrinsically corrupt!) enterprises such as Tesla (465 million dollars of taxpayer money, so that Silicon Valley plutocrats can drive an electric sport car made in France, powered by glued up together laptop batteries; or Solyndra, more than half a billion from the taxpayers, for a tech that was obviously not going to work). OK, Chu, the energy secretary, has a Nobel in Physics, but that just means he was part and parcel of some intelligent project, and that he may have had, personally an intelligent moment.

But diligent a lot, and intelligent, once, does not mean diligent always, and intelligent always. Certainly not, especially if one suddenly imagines one belongs to a race of giants.

For more context on the preceding, see the New Republic (January 25, 2012):,0

What did I want Chu to do? Instead of playing Venture Capitalist with 25 billion dollars, just fund fundamental research, make sure you can persuade people energy taxes have to be risen,  make sure solar plants go up in the high altitude desert south west USA, and that very high speed train lines, in the North East and California get build.

On the latter there was an interesting development: those geniuses realized that in France Very High Speed trains mostly use conventional lines (one can use conventional methods with trains up to 125 mph, 200 km/h). By doing same as the French, the cost of Very High Speed rail in California crumbled down to 60 billion dollars, and still only 3 hours downtown San Francisco to downtown LA… roughly the time to go to the airport and pass security. Morality; go to Europe, and learn.

The expression “layperson” is shared by many a scientist, mathematician, and university type. Maybe not verbally, but certainly conceptually. However, that’s an error.

Indeed the expression “layperson” hints that scientists are some sort of priests. It reminds me of a short story of Isaac Asimov, where civilization has devolved, and, on a planet with multiple suns, the rabble hunts the few remaining astronomers, when an exceptional night occurs.

I also wonder what defines a “scientist”? A scientific degree? But what is really so special in common between a paleontologist and a mathematician? OK, mathematicians maybe do not qualify as scientists? But then a lot of theoretical physics, on the edge, is little else than mathematics gone so wild that even mathematicians avert their eyes (until it works, then they come to make it appear they invented it themselves…)

Something else: a lot of, say, cosmology is a magnificent razzle-dazzle show in full view of “laypersons”. However, a lot of the certainty there seems to have an OPERAtic component: bold assertions, not all the details in for sure (I am alluding, say, to cosmic inflation).

One thing scientists ought to remember is that scientific research is one thing, science itself, that is, certain knowledge that is indeed certain, is something else. It would be good to teach that to the public too, as it would help it learn to search for truth, and not to confuse inquiry with certainty.

Science is just the result of observant and sophisticated common sense. One sees both faling, increasingly, in the USA. A good indicator of that are the “Stand Your Ground” laws in the USA. Those allow any brute carrying a concealed weapon to assassinate anybody who gets in their way, as long as they can build a half way plausible story about the ground on which they stand. In particular if they don’t like the race of their victim.

As far as the gun lobby and the plutocratic lobby are concerned, it’s perfect. Marie Antoinette, being told people ran out of bread, supposedly quipped:”Let them eat cake!” (actually brioche, a viennoiserie, a type of pastry made where she came from!) As far as the gun lobby and the plutocratic lobby are concerned, it’s :”Let them eat lead!” Better: let them serve it, to each other.

That average Americans fell for such a divisive tactic is a testimony to not knowing anymore what common sense is. Something studying carefully the genesis of science can remedy. That is precisely while plutocrats hid behind theocrats to forbid the teaching of critical thinking. For teaching critical thinking, one cannot just teach literary criticism. Because it’s harder to show error, for certain in literature, or even philosophy.

In science, and science history, it’s much more clear cut. Both the truth, and the errors (and why the later happen, itself a type of meta knowledge).  

More generally, the most important subject of study at school ought to be the history of big ideas, big errors, vast delusions, and immense progress. Our civilization surfs on a tsunami of thoughts.


Patrice Ayme

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2 Responses to “Science Rests On The Masses, Not Just Giants.”

  1. Dominique Deux Says:

    Interesting that at least two of the scientific breakthroughs that you mention rested upon, or brought about, a complete upending of then prevailing “common sense” and thus could not possibly stem from it.

    Lavoisier proved that combustion actually added mass to a compound. This ran counter to common sense – even today, ask a layman about it! Naming that extra mass led to oxygen.

    Pasteur proved false an universal assumption, that of spontaneous generation. Such a simple experiment, never tried before because the assumption was held as common sense truth.

    “Common sense” misconceptions can even outlive their centuries: “ether” is still commonly used in literature to designate interplanetary vacuum, even though it has long been admitted that wave transmission from stellar bodies did not need that hypothetical super-thin medium.

    And the idea that today’s common man knows more science than Newton does not hold water. People know, or think they know, ABOUT science: a pitiful handful of factoids, mostly anecdotal. How many can associate square distances with gravity, the most elementary Newton discovery? E=MC² is found on T-shirts but explanations are few and far between! And the successful abuse of the words “magnetic” or “field” by all kinds of hack doctors shows the actual depth of this common sense science “knowledge”.

    I suggest a thought experiment.

    Let’s assume some Maxwellian demon, or its modern equivalent some ultra-plutocrat, realizes that as science becomes more difficult to grasp for himself and his peers, they may someday lose their control on it and face a revolt of the scientists. Rather than be content with the current preventative measure of injecting the populace with the pervasive notion of the “mad scientist”, he (being maybe of the neocon persuasion) decides to preemptively strike and exterminate all non-laymen. (Easy enough, by hacking the “Science Magazine” AAS website and slipping subliminal messages ordering the viewers to jump from the nearest window). This would have rather mild demographic consequences, but ALL science would have to redone from scratch starting with the measurement of the Earth’s diameter. The vague notions in laymen’s minds about the 2nd Law of thermodynamics or relativity or the genome would need centuries before materializing again, possibly incomplete, possibly different. Engineers would climb to the upper scales of the social ladder, but the current technology would at best be stuck in its present state, to slowly fritter away as resources went out. Not to be gloomy though, soccer and cricket scores would be kept intact in mankind’s memory forever.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Dominique: Thanks for the thoughful comments. It seems I will have to review (some of) my thinking, in view of your strong objections (to which I paradoxically subscribe; I despise anybody who learns sport scores).

      It seems that, to try to explain better what I was saying, I will have to write a full essay of sort… I am going to do this now. It’s an enormously complicated subject. It calls on the notion of science versus fluff. Paradoxically, real practicing scientists, I would say, study fluff. Engineers know science.

      I will quote you in it (if you don’t mind). Oxygen and pasteurization: engineers know plenty enough what those are.

      Ether and e = mcc. Nobody knows what those are, and are not, enough to make serious engineering out of them. (I know the basic theory of nuclear fission; e = mcc illustrates it, it’s not central to it; also I know the Casimir effect enough to know that its interpretation is not clear about the structure of the ether… hmmm, let me talk like a physicist, i mean, vacuum…)

      I actually had the extreme pleasure to talk with Feynman about both subjects, one on one, and he agreed with my not-so-subtle and fully iconoclast opinions; Feynman was completely different from any other physicist I have met, except for Louis de Broglie; the greatest are something else in another world.

      Now both are dead, but I hope that their inquiring spirit lives on. In face of the unknown, let’s have ambitious, but honest minds. No, Hawking, we don’t know the history of time. You don’t know the history of time. I can compare the modesty of the inventor of Feynman diagrams, motivated by his care about distinguishing between what was proven, and what was not, with the arrogance of those who speak like the bible, and they know it all, ever since all was.

      I subscribe to both Nature and Science. I hope hedge fund managers have put me on the target list… That will give me another reason to welcome their hatred.


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