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Scientific Method

By       Message Ludwik Kowalski     Permalink
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A colleague once wrote that in science "theories guide while experiments decide,"  referring to the methodology used by scientists to make discoveries and to validate them. Yes, discoveries are sometimes predicted on the basis of existing theoretical considerations. But sometimes they are made in the absence of theories. Let me describe a situation in which a premature theoretical consideration actually interfered with the acceptance of an experimental claim.

Twenty years ago, on March 23 1989, two chemists announced an interesting discovery. They said that their electrolytic cells generated more thermal energy than the amount of electric energy received. The excess of energy, they claimed, was too large to be due to any chemical process. At the same time they offered a tentative theoretical interpretation. Excess heat, they said, might be due to fusion of atomic nuclei of hydrogen atoms. The weak points of this interpretation were at once recognized, creating a very unfavorable situation (discrimination by the scientific establishment) for those who wanted to study the effect.

Let me speculate about a scenario in which a published paper, describing discovery of excess heat, is ended with the following sentence. "The origin of excess heat remains a mystery." Instead of arguing against premature theoretical speculations, other scientists would focus on replication of experimental results. This would either confirm or refute the reality of excess heat, probably in less than one year. The reality of excess heat would naturally lead to theoretical considerations and, possibly, to practical applications of the new discovery. But this did not happen. The field, inappropriately named cold fusion (now called CMNS--Condensed Matter Nuclear Science), continues to be controversial, despite many subsequent confirmations of the reality of excess heat.

In a recent message, posted on the Internet discussion list for CMNS researchers, I was discussing another experiment for which an interesting interpretation was proposed by J. F. I wrote: "What is the best strategy to convince mainstream scientists that our claims are valid? I think that the issue is worth discussing. My advice would be to ask all theoreticians -- including J. F., whose theory inspired the protocol based on starters -- not to inject theoretical interpretations until facts are recognized as real. Remember what happened in 1989. Instead of focusing on real experimental facts (generation of excess heat) discussion quickly shifted to theoretical considerations, such as coulomb barrier, expectations based on wrong models, etc. It would be much better if the new phenomenon were called UEH (unexplained excess heat) rather than CF (cold fusion), until the reality of UEH were recognized by all scientists.

If it were up to me I would recommend focusing on our new experimental facts. Let us agree that clusters of tracks are not due to artifacts, such as radioactivity or cosmic rays. Let us agree that clusters are likely to be due to unexplained nuclear projectiles (UNP). Then let us try to convince others that UNP are real. Trying to mix experimental facts with theories might backfire again. We want people to look at our experimental data; we want them to perform experiments; we do not want the debate to shift toward not-yet-accepted ideas, such as polyneutrons, etc.

I know it is a touchy issue. Theoreticians do not want to be told what to do, what to publish and how long to wait. And we all believe that pure empiricism is not science. Theoretical debates are essential. But, like other powerful tools, theories can have both positive and negative effects. I am afraid that premature theoretical considerations can produce more harm than good at this delicate stage. . . . " Responding to my suggestion, J. F. wrote:

" The idea that neutral particles of a novel type play a role in CMNS has proved fruitful. It encouraged R. O. to look for and find charged particles generated in the vapor over the electrolyte in an electrolysis cell (ICCF11). It encouraged him to look for and find charged particles generated in the air beyond the cell wall (ICCF11). It prompted the suggestion that a bit of material exposed to the reaction in one laboratory might serve as a starter for igniting a reaction in another laboratory. Whether or not polyneutron theory is correct, it has proven to be useful by suggesting these procedures. Progress is faster when theory and experiment go hand in hand. They [theoretical and experimental scientists] learn from each other and they teach each other. It would be a mistake for theoreticians to remain silent."

Responding to the above, I wrote: "I agree, the long-term goal is to know what happens, and to understand it in terms of what is already known. My suggestion had to do with strategy. It is better to first offer what is easier to defend. Experimental data are easier to defend than J. F's polyneutrons. But I am only an observer. Let us hope that the 1989 situation does not repeat itself. I am afraid that people will start discussing polyneutrons instead of performing and discussing experiments. It will be easier to defend polyneutrons after existence of clusters, predicted by John, is accepted by mainstream scientists."

In another message, under the same thread, I wrote; "Explaining facts in terms of unexplained ideas seems to be counterproductive. But this is not something unheard of. I am thinking about the famous paradox of missing energy in beta decay. Calorimetric measurements of mean energies per beta particle, conducted in 1930s, were not consistent with the law of conservation of energy. To explain these experimental results, Pauli invented neutrino, a particle of negligible mass that carries the missing energy. I suppose that many people had reservations about this, just like many of us resist explanations based on polyneutrons, erzions and magnetic monopoles. But Pauli's hypothesis was eventually shown to be correct by Cowan and Reins (1950's). "


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Ludwik Kowalski is a retired physics teacher (Professor emeritus, Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA). He is the author of two recently-published FREE books:

1) "Hell on Earth: Brutality and violence under the Stalinist regime" (more...)

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