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207) Cases of Scientific Controversies

Ludwik Kowalski (3/18/05)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

I belong to Phys-L, the Internet discussion list for physics teachers. Last night a teacher from California posted a message with the following URL in it:


It is a link to an article that appeared in the current issue of New Scientist Magazine (dated as 3/19/05). The title is: “13 things that do not make sense.” Describing
the article the teacher wrote: “The review has been one of a handful of American publications that has defended continued investigation into cold fusion - in contrast to other media which has ridiculed or ignored the issue. Now the New Scientist lists
cold fusion as one of a dozen ‘observations that simply defy explanation . . . exceptions that could rewrite all the rules’. “ The “13 things” are examples of protoscience; they are not examples of pseudoscience. Let me summarize these examples, and insert some comments. The last case is cold fusion.

Case #1 (Placebo effects):
This is about Benedetti’s data on how “ ‘mind can affect body’s biochemistry. . . . The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction.’ Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know.” The placebo effect, according to the article, is a well known experimental fact. That fact, however, has not yet been explained. So what? Absence of an explanation does not take away from its use in medicine.

Case #2 (The horizon problem):
This is a cosmological paradox. How can the microwave radiation fill the visible universe, whose size, from one visible horizon to another is 28 billion light years? This well recognized (?) fact is in conflict with a confirmed theory according to which nothing can travel faster than light. Attempts to solve the paradox lead to other paradoxes, according to a Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees. The conclusion is that “In scientific terms, the uniform temperature of the background radiation remains an anomaly.”

Case #3 (Ultra-energetic cosmic rays):
“For more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic rays that should not exist.” Their energies exceed the theoretically established limit (known as the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin limit). How will this apparent contradiction will be solved in the future? Will experimental facts will be invalidated or will something wrong be found in the theory? The essence of science is to recognize contradictions and to find ways of solving them. An ongoing experiment designed to shed light on the well known problem is described in the article.

Case #4 (Homeopathy):
“Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.
You can understand why Ennis remains skeptical.“ Me too. But I would not refuse an invitation to witness a properly conducted demonstration. According to the article, “No homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial.”

Case #5 (Dark Matter):
Astronomers know that many galaxies spin faster than can possibly be explained in terms of our best gravitational theory. This paradox was recognized by Vera Rubin in 1970. “The best response from physicists was to suggest there is more stuff out there than we can see. The trouble was, nobody could explain what this ‘dark matter’ was.
And they still can't. . . . Astronomical observations suggest that dark matter must make up about 90 per cent of the mass in the universe, yet we are astonishingly ignorant what that 90 per cent is.” That is one possibility. The other is that our gravitational theory should be modified to deal with extremely large distances.

Case #6 (Life on Mars):
This is a case where an experiment performed on Mars (Viking Lander, 1976) indicated presence of organic molecules. The discovery made by Gilbert Levin was not recognized as a proof. “Almost all the mission scientists erred on the side of caution and declared Viking's discovery a false positive. But was it? The arguments continue to rage, but results from NASA's latest rovers show that the surface of Mars was almost certainly wet in the past and therefore hospitable to life. And there is plenty more evidence where that came from, Levin says. ‘Every mission to Mars has produced evidence supporting my conclusion. None has contradicted it’. " But not contradicting is not the same thing as confirming. The original experiment was not replicated during later missions.

Case #7 (polyneutrons):
At the last cold fusion conference (ICCF11) I learned about a suggested theory of cold fusion. That theory of John Fisher was described in item #191. The description, however, does not reflect recent modifications. Several days ago John wrote to me about the new version of the theory; it will be described in an upcoming conference in Italy. A new attempt to identify a polyneutron is apparently in progress in France.

Case #8 (Trajectories of two space probes):
Observed trajectories of two space probes (Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively) did not coincide with what was anticipated. How can this be explained? “Nobody knows. Some possible explanations have already been ruled out, including software errors, the solar wind or a fuel leak. If the cause is some gravitational effect, it is not one we know anything about. In fact, physicists are so completely at a loss that some have resorted to linking this mystery with other inexplicable phenomena.” Another indication that our knowledge of laws of gravity is limited?

Case #9 (Dark energy):
The article claims that dark energy (a property of empty space) the most contradictory problem in physics. “In 1998, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at ever faster speeds. It's an effect still searching for a cause - until then, everyone thought the universe's expansion was slowing down after the big bang. Theorists are still floundering around, looking for a sensible explanation, . . . "

Case #10 (Planet X):
Distribution of icy rocks, in our own planetary system changes suddenly beyond the planet Pluto. This has been interpreted as an indication that a planet, as massive as Earth, was attracted all the rocks around. But no such planet has ever been observed. This controversy is likely to be resolved in 2015 when the New Horizons probe (to be launched by NASA in 2006 will reach Pluto.

Case #11 (Extraterrestrials trying to contact us?):
An astronomer, Jerry Ehman, once detected a very unusual signal with a radio telescope. “And 28 years later no one knows what created the signal. ‘I am still waiting for a definitive explanation that makes sense,’ Ehman says.” Why is he waiting for it? Who is he expecting to provide it? Rare effect are very difficult to study because they are rare.

Case #12 (light from distant quasars):
Light emitted 12 billion years ago, and analyzed by spectroscopists on earth was found to contain peaks due to absorption in atoms scattered in the universe. But locations of peaks seems to be shifted with respect to where they are on earth. That is what was discovered in 1997 by an Australian astronomer, John Web. But French astronomers, headed by Patrick Petitjean, failed to confirm this observation. The team is now conducting a new experiment to validate the data. What can be a better illustration of how controversies should always be resolved in science? But progress is not easy. “The more we look at these new data, the more difficulties we see’ wrote another team member, Michael Murphy.

Case #13 (cold fusion):
“After 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume . . . With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.
That's quite a turnaround. The DoE's first report on the subject, published 15 years ago, concluded that the original cold fusion results . . . were impossible to reproduce, and thus probably false. . . . The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed impossible by every accepted scientific theory.”

Validation of experimental facts should be based on better experiments. Science has been highly successful because it is characterized by unity between theoretical models and experimental data. The principle, as somebody wrote, is that theories guide but experiments decide. In science, unlike in mathematics, validity of theoretical models is based on experiments. Unfortunately, as illustrated in unit # 206, the DoE does not seem to be open to support research in the area of cold fusion.

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