Science Doesn’t Work the Way You Might Think: The lesson of planet Vulcan

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"Facts are not autonomous. They gain meaning from the frameworks within which human beings interpret them."

EXCERPT: [...] The next move was obvious, except no one dared make it: Could Newton be wrong? A few astronomers proposed ad-hoc solutions [...] But for the most part, for the next 30 years, Mercury’s rambles faded into obscurity. On one side, there was the most successful theory in the history of modern science [Newton's]. On the other, a tiny unaccountable anomaly [Mercury's wobble]. It was no contest.

The challenge to Newton did come, of course. In 1905, Albert Einstein published the special theory of relativity [...] By 1907, Einstein realized that the logic of this first theory of relativity conflicted with the classical understanding of motion and gravity. For one example: In Newton’s view, the force of gravity leaps across empty space instantly, the sun’s tug grabbing earth with no time delay at all, while under Einstein’s relativity, nothing, not even force, can move faster than the speed of light.

There were other issues as well, but it was that kind of contradiction and no mere awkward observation that led Einstein to extend relativity into a theory of gravity. It would take him eight years, but finally, in November of 1915, he had got it: both the physical picture of a universe in which energy and matter deform space and time—and the mathematical framework that allowed him to calculate the paths matter-energy must take in this new cosmos. And so, when Einstein had finally tuned his math to the point where he could calculate an actual example from the real world, he turned to the case of a planet traveling close to its star: Mercury. [...] he inserted the appropriate numbers and cranked through the equations. [...] With that, Einstein knew. [...]

A century on, we celebrate general relativity and Einstein’s re-imagining of how the universe organizes itself. Vulcan now rates barely a footnote to the history of astronomy. But it has its uses. Contrary to the myth of science, facts are not autonomous. They gain meaning from the frameworks within which human beings interpret them. [...] The decades Vulcan lasted as almost-real mark the distance separating our myth of scientific progress and the way science actually happens day by day. [...]

The strangeness of the geology and fossil evidence behind the theory of continental drift helped drive a half-century of resistance to the idea. Siddhartha Mukherjee documented in his book "The Emperor of All Maladies" how a fixation on the cure for a misconceived disease inhibited recognition of the complexity of cancer for a generation. [...] In the long run, it’s true: Reality imposes a final and authoritative judgment on the rights and wrongs of any idea. In the moment, though, each moment, including ours, meaning in science emerges painfully, slowly, one fallible, historically contingent, self-deceiving and (very) occasionally triumphant scientist at a time. In other words, Vulcan’s brief brush with existence (1859-1915, RIP) is no mere curiosity. It’s a caution....

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