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It’s amazing how much good science started out as mistakes…

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<em>Coffee</em> Tins Says Eric Scerri at Los Angeles Times:

Detailed case studies on the history of chemistry and physics show that the role of genius in advancing those fields — and even the role of rationality — is overstated. Rather than a hyper-intellectual, alien activity practiced by a remote priesthood, science is hit and miss, the ever-changing product of less-than-brilliant people, just like every other human activity.

In the 1910s, the English mathematical physicist John Nicholson published a number of articles in which he proposed that several proto-elements (his term) existed in outer space and were the basis of our familiar terrestrial elements. Their presence in a number of celestial bodies, he claimed, enabled him for the first time to do successful calculations on the light reaching us from the Orion nebula and the solar corona.

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What’s hot? What’s not?/Niklas Bildhauer, Wikimedia

At first his findings seemed to hold up, but it soon became clear that the calculations were incorrect or the result of numerological speculations. Nevertheless in the course of his work Nicholson also proposed that the angular momentum of electrons circulating around a nucleus should be “quantized,” meaning that it could only occur with specific definite values. This notion would set Danish physicist (and, ultimately, Nobel Prize winner) Niels Bohr off on his theory of the structure of the hydrogen atom. From that, quantum mechanics and all the technological applications based on it — including lasers and semiconductors — would follow.More.

Mistakes, it seems, will only get us so far. The rest is meticulous slogging.

See also: Bad science: Is psychology just a scapegoat?

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One Reply to “It’s amazing how much good science started out as mistakes…

  1. 1
    critical rationalist says:

    Actually, it’s not amazing. If ideas of how to solve problems start out as guesses that we criticize for the purpose of finding errors, we would expect them to start out containing mistakes.

    No surprise here.

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