A Hodgepodge of Controversies

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Science  29 Jan 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5402, pp. 645a-646a
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5402.645a

A review by Philip W. Anderson*

Physicists in Conflict Neil A. Porter Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol, UK, 1998. 291 pp. $39.50, £25. ISBN 0-7503-0509-6.

I approached Neil Porter's Physicists in Conflict anticipating considerable pleasure. There are rich and largely untapped veins of material illustrating the causes and consequences of folly, obduracy, and fallibility in physics, and I looked forward to a rewarding feast of examples. My expectations were not met. I was disappointed in the author's conceptualization of the topics, the limited selection of examples, the lack of depth in his research, and the infelicity of the writing.

Porter presents, in historical order, a series of conflicts involving physicists, summarizing the facts and then trying to bring out parallels among his examples. He devotes the first third of the book to the pre-modern period, in which such figures as Hypatia of Alexandria, Roger Bacon, Bruno, Galileo, and Kepler experienced religious persecution. Then, skipping 300 years that contain such interesting (and famous) conflicts as Newton versus Descartes, Porter proceeds to the 20th century. Here, he examines an assortment of incidents—some famous, some obscure—including Boltzmann's troubles about atomic theory with the positivist philosophers, Blos Cabrera's mysterious detection (unrepeated) of a magnetic monopole, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's withdrawal of Oppenheimer's security clearance, and the Cherwell-Tizard conflict over the effectiveness of strategic bombing in World War II.

Porter fails to demonstrate what these very diverse examples have in common. For instance, the early ones are of historical importance in the birth of modern science, but they have little to do with the two cases on science's dealing with simple blunders (the reported effects of Blondel's nonexistent “N-rays” and Cabrera's monopole). These, in turn, do not resemble in any way the Oppenheimer or Tizard and Blackett versus Cherwell controversies, which highlight the political difficulties of scientists who choose to advise governments. And again very different are the four conflicts involving deep, initially unresolved, questions within science proper: the atomic hypothesis, continuous versus big-bang creation of matter, quantum measurement, and multiple production of mesons in nuclear collisions.

The chapters on specific examples provide well-documented historical and biographical sketches of the principal characters and their interactions. I found the detailed explanations of the various contributions of Bruno, Kepler, and Galileo and their relations to the ideas of Copernicus to be interesting and enlightening; however, to historians of science this must be a well-cultivated field. For Porter's 20th-century examples, I was more familiar with the science involved and with some of the sources he tapped. I repeatedly found Porter's histories to be derived from one or a few sources, and I was put off by what he chose to emphasize in these stories.

Much of the Boltzmann story, for instance, seems to have come fairly straight from Brush's history of statistical mechanics (1). Porter portrays Boltzmann as a victim of persecution by Mach and the Vienna circle. It would have been more informative, however, to focus instead on the aberration of the Mach and Ostwald's positivist objections to atomism. That would have provided an excellent example of the atmosphere of Kuhnian “crisis” that, we now recognize, signaled the birth of quantum theory.

One might also question Porter's choice of examples of conflict. The case of “N-rays” was told better, and with more details, in Langmuir's pamphlet on “pathological science” (2). Why not discuss cold fusion or polywater instead?

Porter's account of the classic Bohr-Einstein debate ignores the realization, which has become increasingly clear, that both sides were far from the truth. Though victorious, and useful for particular purposes, Bohr's philosophy of “complementarity” was obscure and nonsensical. Neither Einstein nor Bohr realized that the measuring apparatus must be described quantum mechanically in order to attempt a consistent theory.

In his treatment of the Oppenheimer case, Porter again reprises a familiar story. To me, the case is not simply a quaint incident of the McCarthy era, but the first losing skirmish in a half-century of struggles by selfless scientists to contain nuclear overkill. In these struggles Edward Teller again and again played the key role of villain. His actions against Oppenheimer helped Teller gain the confidence of the political establishment, in spite of a history of behavior counterproductive to the interests of the country extending from his noncooperation in wartime Los Alamos through his proven deceptions about key components of the Strategic Defense Initiative boondoggle.

The chapters discussing Hoyle's continuous-creation universe and multiple production in cosmic-ray collisions involve an entirely different kind of dispute. Such “conflicts” are the life and soul of fundamental science; they are in no sense aberrations and indicate healthy fields. Significant figures like Hoyle can often promote hypotheses to an importance they may not deserve. (For example, the continuous creation of hydrogen atoms violated enough fundamental symmetry laws to render the idea implausible to quantum physicists.) It is not, however, at all unusual or undesirable to have at hand several competing hypotheses from which, it is hoped, experimental facts will determine a choice. Some of these ideas, in the end, will appear to have been misguided (“particle democracy” from the 1960s, for example) or advanced somewhat prematurely and contentiously (“excitonic superconductivity” comes to mind). But early hypothesis formation is what theoretical physics is about, and there are many successful examples: the electroweak unification, asymptotic freedom, localization. Each of these ideas had its controversial period, its convinced opponents, and its apparent experimental failures. It may be amazing how deep scientists' emotions can run in the midst of this process, but, except for the case of Boltzmann, Porter hardly documents that. Nor does he discuss an extraordinarily contentious field, like high-temperature superconductivity.

Finally, I found the brief (four-page) chapter on Blas Cabrera's observation of a single magnetic monopole out of place. Any single observation, no matter how bizarre, allows for too many alternative explanations: pranks, coincidence, inattention, thoughtless mistakes, some anomalous type of cosmic radiation, vermin, et cetera. If Porter needed an example of implausible and controversial observations, there were others available from the same laboratory (free quarks and falling electrons were aberrations of Cabrera's predecessor). To Cabrera's credit, he never oversold his monopole (assuming one accepts publishing as an isolated event).

The “Conclusions” chapter does not succeed in unifying Porter's diverse examples. These suggest that scientists' controversies are not settled by bargaining, compromise, mediations, or bluffing, and that lying and fraud are quite uncommon. Inevitably, there is a right answer, although it may not win politically and its victory may only be recognized after a lot of history. That scientific theories often die only with their advocates is a true, but not new, insight.

Unfortunately, Porter sometimes repeats as fact folklore that is questionable or even wrong. That the effectiveness of the physics community “reached its highest point in the 1920s and 1930s” seems merely the reminiscence of a survivor looking back at his youth. Those years may have been a Golden Age, but there are others: the Standard Model was produced in the 1960s and 1970s by a rather small, tight community; modern condensed matter theory dates from the 1950s and 1960s; modern astrophysics is still growing and, with the advent of the Hubble telescope, may be in its greatest period. Also, in contrast to Porter's claim that “in recent years most Nobels are for high-powered and expensive experiments,” only a quarter of the last 40 physics prizes have rewarded such efforts and, notably, the most recent awards have gone to individual or small group efforts.

Physicists in Conflict suffers from other shortcomings. The writing is often puzzling, leaving one wondering what “this” refers to. The discussions, such as those on kinetic theory and the complex set of ideas about the multiple production of particles, sometimes fail to explain the science.

In summary, stories of conflict in science, or between scientists and the establishment, can be fascinating and enlightening, but I feel that the source materials offer better reading than this collection. Unfortunately, a great book that captures internal conflicts in science has yet to appear.


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