Is astrophysics ready to draw a lesson from Thomas Kuhn?

Is astrophysics ready to draw a lesson from Thomas Kuhn?

Thomas Kuhn’s famous treatise The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has changed our perception of science. Terms like ‘paradigm shift’, ‘research program’ and ‘scientific community’ have entered the language. But are we ready to apply Kuhn’s insights when it comes to practice? I have my doubts. Let’s first recall an old textbook example of how a scientific community hindered progress one century ago.

In 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed a theory of continental drift. Not only was the shape of the continents in favour of his idea, but he also provided further well-documented paleontological and geological evidence that backed his theory. Yet, his ideas were vehemently rejected by all leading geologists of the time. While the established theory of sunken land bridges was complicated, arbitrary and counter-intuitive, Wegener’s alternative was not accepted because nobody could imagine the physics behind the motion of the continents.

One key factor, however, was the fact that he was a meteorologist. As such, he was not part of the ‘community’ and, therefore, geologists dismissed him as an ‘amateur’. Some imprecise terminology in Wegener’s writings helped his opponents ridicule his theory as ‘pseudo-science’, though his only fault was not holding the prejudices of the field. As the geologist Chamberlin put it around 1928, “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again”.

Today’s solar physics may be in the exact same situation. Pierre-Marie Robitaille, a chemist and professor of radiology at the Ohio State University, in Columbus, USA, claims that the sun is not gaseous but may consist of liquid metallic hydrogen – a paradigm-shattering attack on the standard solar model that has been established for almost a century now.

However, Robitaille’s arguments make a lot of sense. He demonstrates a major flaw in an old law. His alternative liquid metallic hydrogen nicely explains coronal heating. Pictures that show seismic waves produced by solar flares closely resemble ripples in a pond (See here). A distinct solar surface therefore fits the evidence as clearly as South America’s and Africa’s shapes fit.

It took theoreticians decades to work around the evidence with a gaseous model by postulating huge stellar opacities ad hoc. But will these complicated assumptions—alarm bells for Kuhn’s readers—really sink in the same manner as the land bridges of the 19th century geologists did? I don’t know. Obviously, this is not the place to discuss the question in detail.

The problem is that evaluating Robitaille’s arguments requires expertise in very different fields – thermodynamics, astrophysics, for the sun, and condensed matter physics, for the liquid metallic hydrogen. Who has such expertise? Astrophysicists often refuse to discuss a non-gaseous sun, while knowing about liquid metallic hydrogen as little as geologists back then knew about plate tectonics. It appears that condensed matter physicists might trigger the revolution, if ever.

By the way, this is a pattern that appears in history – it was the radio-chemists Irène Joliot-Curie Curie and Otto Hahn , who eventually proved wrong physics’ misconceptions about the impossibility of nuclear fission. But that episode lasted for just five years, while the gaseous sun has been established for a century. This and nothing else is the reason why no independent, serious evaluation is taking place.

Here is the danger: when the work of generations is at stake, it becomes too tempting to ignore Robitaille’s arguments completely. If there is a lesson to learn from Thomas Kuhn, we have to think about the methods before debating the content. We must first check whether someone carries out serious scientific work or not. And this is easy to verify. Instead, accusations that his publications are not peer-reviewed—guess why?—and claiming Robitaille is an “amateur scientist” fatally reminds one of the ad hominem attacks launched on Wegener one hundred years ago.

I do not have the expertise to decide whether Robitaille is right or not. But I can perfectly testify—and every honest scientist should be able to—that his research is well-documented, sound and demonstrates a broad knowledge of general physics. Ignoring it may entail setbacks with long-term consequences for astrophysics.

Alexander Unzicker

Alexander is a German science writer, author of Bankrupting Physics and The Higgs Fake.

Featured image credit: SOHO consortium, a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

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4 thoughts on “Is astrophysics ready to draw a lesson from Thomas Kuhn?”

  1. This may reflect the age old problem of keeping the comfort and perks of the existing order of things and their vested interests, inherent in a conforming or controlling fearful or complacent human nature, rolling on without too much anxiety – as well as a necessary and rigorous attitude of caution and doubt.
    Scientists – shock, horror – are just people.  They have varying degrees of awareness, pride, ambition, self-consciousness, courage, honesty, humility, greed, envy, personal and financial difficulties and ego like all human beings and it takes a brave soul to speak truth to power, especially if speaking the truth puts your career – and income – and the established order and livelihoods of large numbers of people, their credibility, authority and funding at peril. 

    The wisdom traditions of the world have made a thorough study of the traits of human nature from which science could beneficially supplement its merely focusing on the ‘seen, not the seer’.  An incorporated requirement for each scientist to hold a painfully clear mirror up to him or herself, as part of their training, and acknowledge their own biases, prejudices, attitudes, assumptions and preconceptions would be a much more enlightened state of affairs and lend much more credibility to the discipline.  
    Upton Sinclair’s observation that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” (not to mention promotions, honours and awards) says much in a few words about the way of the world – and that includes science and scientists.

  2. Very good article. Prof. Robitaile was very brave and publish a paper pointing something that is well known by electronic/telecommunications engineers about Kirchoff’s Law. Unfortunately it costs his career and reputation.
    He’s being violently attacked, but I doubt if any scholar critic will have balls to confront him in the lab. They know better.
    What I’m viewing today is only Inquisition like arguments.
    A very sad time in Science history.
    By the way, at college we were well warned by a friend teacher about Kirchoff’s Law and other abnormalities: Do your job, get the money and shut your mouth!