Most scientists don't want to play the role of rebel

April 09, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Freeman Dyson, a professor of physics at Princeton University, has just published a book of essays under the title "The Scientist As Rebel."

Dyson successfully gives abundant biographical information to generate thought about the possibility that scientists are peculiarly situated to rebel against conventional opinion. To be honest, while I was aware of several scientists who would qualify for that description, there was no realization that this characterization was widespread.

It is entirely likely that Dyson has read an early classic, "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology," by Andrew White. Written in 1896, it is obvious that an up-to-date supplement was needed and that Dyson was up to the challenge.

With both volumes in mind, it should be pointed out that many of those gifted minds would not consider themselves to be consciously involved in rebellion - intellectual or otherwise. Rather, they were on the cutting edge of some scientific research that, when interpreted a certain way, would be at variance with popular opinion.


In the well-known case of Galileo, it is clear that he defended his position that the sun - not the Earth - was the center of our solar system, with the awareness that his claims were contrary to that of the Catholic Church. However, it is safe to say that he did not see himself as a deliberate disrupter of the peace and that he wanted to maintain a working relationship with the papacy.

Earlier, Giordano Bruno, judged to be a heretic, was imprisoned for six years before he was burned at the stake and his ashes scattered abroad. Galileo, therefore, was well aware of the awesome power of the Inquisitors and, to prevent the same fate, submitted to a recantation of his views. "I, Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner and on my knees, and before your Eminences, having before my eyes the Holy Gospel, which I touch with my hands, abjure, curse, and detest the error and the heresy of the movement of the Earth."

When we advance to the story of Darwin, it is even clearer that he did not want to consciously play the role of a rebel. Nevertheless, the idea of natural selection as an explanation for the origin of species was in direct contrast to the fixity of species by divine decree held by both clergy and science. This was regarded as a rebellion against Genesis. All biographers present him as a most reluctant rebel.

Albert Einstein is closer to being a conscious rebel than many of those listed by Dyson. Albert was rebellious at an early age and his teachers complained of his disruptive influence on his classmates. He remained independent until later in life, when he refused to accept the thinking of young rebels against classical physics with his work in quantum mechanics.

Einstein brushed aside the need for ether - a pillar of science. The very best minds of the day would not relinquish this "needed" carrier of electric and magnetic waves. Einstein prevailed. The same was true with regard to the conventional thinking about time and space. Before, relativity theory, time and space were separate and absolute entities. With Einstein, they were made inseparable and time was reduced to a purely local event.

Much more could be said about Einstein as a rebel, but it cannot be forgotten that he was, after all, human. When Werner Heisenberg proposed an "uncertainty principle" in the behavior of subatomic particles, Einstein steadfastly refused to accept such a theory. He was a firm believer in the invariance of the laws of nature and, on several occasions, asserted that "God does not play dice with the universe." As it turned out, Heisenberg's position has gained acceptance.

Dyson has not convinced me that the great majority of scientists are rebels. Rather, it is in the very nature of scientists to collide with conventional opinion because their studies lead them into new worlds of discovery in which integrity requires studied objectivity.

In a nutshell: What appears to be the result of personal rebellion is really the unintended consequence of being a scientist.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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