The history of science reveals that knowledge, like people, rarely moves in a straight line. Image courtesy flickr user storrao.
Naomi Oreskes is likely one of the few historians of science who is known to the wider world, mostly because of her work on climate change. Online science magazine LiveScience interviewed her recently and asked such questions as what she liked best about being a researcher. Oreskes replied that she enjoys learning new things and learning about how the world works, and that so much of what she does is "hidden in plain sight"—the things that people don’t usually pay attention to. She also added that she’s surprised more people don’t know about history of science, given how much fun it is.
I agree, and I’m always amazed at the assumptions non-historians often bring to the history of science, including what I call the straight line of progress that runs from whatever point in time one chooses to right now. Discoveries, knowledge, science itself, move triumphantly along that straight line.
One of my favorite stories messes with that assumption—it’s about the substance that never was. Despite its nonexistence, the ether proved to be one of the most scientifically productive “objects” of the 19th century. Almost everyone assumed it was real and pervaded all of space; many scientists busied themselves with discovering its properties. James Clerk Maxwell built electromagnetic field theory—one of the high points of 19th century science—on its back; time dilation and length contraction were invoked to explain some of ether’s strange properties. In 1905 Albert Einstein used the theories built around and based on the ether to demolish the very idea of the ether. He called his own theory special relativity.
The ether is a wonderful example of something that never existed yet had very real effects. Sometimes, being wrong is just as important as being right. As Oreskes says in the interview, science is a human process, involving human dynamics. Mix history, science, and people, and the results are very interesting indeed.
Michal Meyer is the editor-in-chief of Chemical Heritage.
An Inside Perspective on the Life of a Science Historian [LiveScience]
Only a Theory [Periodic Tabloid]