My Grandfather Thought He Solved A Cosmic Mystery

There is, in the end, no seminar. The respectable physicist has gone astray.

The mavericks of science make the best stories. Many profound insights began as heresies, their proponents mocked, degraded, or ignored. Birds are descended from dinosaurs, argued the American paleontologist John Ostrom, a kooky and unpopular claim when he made it in the 1970s. Earth orbits the sun, Copernicus asserted. In our cells live the descendants of bacteria, Lynn Margulis said. One interpretation of quantum mechanics is that there are many worlds, Hugh Everett proposed, and it was decades before anyone agreed. It’s almost like first you must be outcast for an idea before you can be applauded for it.

In his famous 1962 book, >The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn writes that science tends to be fundamentally resistant to change. “Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties,” he writes, because they conflict with the received wisdom on which fields are built. Such tales of misunderstood genius are satisfying, righteous—almost expected, even among scientists. When I first began to ask other physicists to take a look at what my grandfather was working on, I was surprised by how many entertained the idea, before even looking at it, that he was on to something.

Not every maverick has a shortcut to the truth, however. The Nobel laureate Linus Pauling promulgated the idea later in his career that large doses of vitamin C could treat cancer. Lynn Margulis, who was right about the bacterial origins of mitochondria, supported the idea that butterflies and caterpillars were different species. Even Einstein could be thought of as a failed rebel, says Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis. “Thinking that he had emerged victorious, he tried to devise a non-quantum theory of everything, and just miserably failed,” Simonton says. And of course there are mavericks on the fringes of science, people who, though they have no training, believe they have solved fundamental problems.

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My Grandfather Thought He Solved a Cosmic Mystery
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