This is one of three articles I had to write for a course I took at the Colorado School of Mines called Advanced Science Communication. This article questions the dogmatism and ironic inflexibility that scientists sometimes enter into.
“Can we ever shift the horizon of possibility?” The thought swirled endlessly through my head as I pondered the theoretical impossibility of cold fusion. There is plenty of food for thought in Cold Fusion and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Pinch, 1998), but I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy with the surety in which scientists vocalized their criticism for the infamous Pons & Fleischmann experiment on cold fusion. How many scientific “facts” in the past have been overturned by someone who wasn’t willing to accept the status quo? More importantly, how many scientific breakthroughs are there still to discover, simply because we believe them to be impossible? I don’t want to imply that I doubt the credibility of the physicists making the claims about the experiment; if there’s good reason to believe that true cold fusion would kill the experimenter simply by the neutron emissions, I don’t mean to suggest that I know better than them. I do, however, want to suggest that theory (while important) is not always the same as reality. I decided to take this as a challenge to find similar historical case studies in which an impossibility really did, in fact, turn out to be possible.
Copernicus and the heliocentric model may perhaps be the most well-known and poignant example of pushing the boundaries of possibility (Linton, 2004). While the concept had been proposed prior to Copernicus, he was the first to make any sort of substantive claim regarding it. Since Aristotle, the world had basically operated under a geocentric assumption whereby the earth was at the center of the Universe. The geocentric model was obviously motivated reasoning from a theology that reasoned if God had placed man as the pinnacle of creation, then it was logical to assume that our planet was at the center of everything.
His book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, initially received quite kindly, came under fire by the Catholic church as contrary to the Holy Scriptures. Copernicus by that time was dead, but his predecessors (such as Galileo and Kepler) bolstered his claims with supporting research of astronomical proportions (Repcheck, 2007). I’m painting with broad strokes here, but we can recognize that today heliocentrism is an unquestioned assumption of astronomy; how did a claim initially considered impossible come to be taken as a good picture of reality?
A modern example of a possibility shift is the news that broke last week regarding neutrinos travelling 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light (view the video above to hear one of the scientists on the team comment), a speed that according to theoretical physics is impossible to break (Brumfiel, 2011). Now to be certain, this experiment is brand new and time alone will tell if it can stand the scrutiny of the coming months. It hasn’t technically been published yet, and therefore has to go through the process of peer-revision. I can’t help but see a growing trend of similar cases, however: the world says x is impossible until someone performs an experiment that suggests x really is, in fact, possible. Lord Kelvin, the creator of the Kelvin temperature scale, believed human flight to be absolutely impossible and yet the Wright brothers made their landmark flights just years before his death. Ernest Rutherford, another well-known scientist, believed the atom bomb to be impossible and yet the events of World War II proved him wrong as well (Kaku, 2008).
Somehow there has to be a tertium quid, a third way, between the impossibility prison of our preconceived notions and the blind naivete of wishful thinking. Perhaps one day we will see a modest proposal of cold fusion that stands up to criticism. Perhaps one day we will find out that what we had deemed absolutely, irrefutably impossible was only impossible because of our preconceived notions that lock us into a specific view of the world. A good segment of our population today cannot conceive of the possibility that the earth could be globally getting warmer, and so they believe it to be impossible. Over time these preconceived notions become so cemented that they become mindsets that take massive effort to uproot and we end up in a situation where Copernicus must again prove that the earth is not at the center of the Universe.
The ultimate answer to my question is something that we discussed in class but never formalized as a course concept. Nevertheless I believe it to be truly foundational in shaping how the public conceptualizes science. Science as a dynamic system of thought allows us to push the horizons of possibility because we have never “proved” anything to be unchangeable fact. Science is not static. It may look as such from a 30,000 foot flyover but on a macro scale it is constantly changing. Yes, the earth is no longer thought to be the center of the Universe, but we’ve also discovered that the sun is not the center of the Universe either; it’s only central in this solar system. If we can re-frame science as dynamic, we might find our horizons morphing into mountain peaks that may look difficult to reach, but at least they’re not impossible.
The societal ramifications of framing science in this way would be revolutionary; no longer would we have inflammatory debates raging over whether something is proven or disproven, but whether a scientific concept is attainable with our current level of technological ability. We’d smash the glass ceiling that prevents us from reaching the pinnacle of achievement.
What would it take to get there? Does the public even want to view science as dynamic? There are quite profound sociological questions wrapped up in this concept, and it may be wise to follow that trail in the future. Perhaps we may reach a point of humility where we can suggest something to be inconceivable to our current state of scientific achievement rather than brashly stating something to be impossible.
- Pinch, Trevor. (1998). Cold Fusion and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Stamford: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
- Linton, Christopher M. (2004). From Eudoxus to Einstein—A History of Mathematical Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Repcheck, Jack (2007). Copernicus’ Secret. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Brumfiel, Geoff. (2011). Particles Break Light-Speed Limit. Nature Publishing Group.
- Kaku, Michio. (2008). Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel.