Thursday, July 10, 2008

Of Phlogiston and Aether, Cabbages and Kings

Why does wood burn?

Simple. It’s rich in phlogiston, that alchemical sulfurous spirit. Ashes are left behind when all of the phlogiston has been used up.

Or scientific thinkers used to believe back in the 1700s.

In his book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (2008), New York Times science writer George Johnson shows how some scientific theories held sway until researchers empirically proved they were bunk.

Through his experiments Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier provided evidence in 1777 to the Academy of Science that oxygen, not phlogiston, made things burn. Before he left the scene he introduced the concept of an invisible substance called caloric, a subtle fluid that acted as the carrier of heat. But James Joule disproved that idea during a presentation at Oxford in 1847. He demonstrated that energy, not caloric, was the force behind a horse pulling a wagon or a steam engine pushing a piston.

Another concept that bit the dust was aether. Scientists noted that light beams created interference patterns when they overlapped. This meant that waves were involved. But what was creating the waves?

There had to be a universal medium that was spread throughout the universe in the spaces between stars and atoms. The Earth was traveling through the aether as it orbited the sun. Ergo, at times it must be crossing against the aetheral current.

In 1887 researchers A.A. Michelson and Edward Morley set up a tabletop experiment to prove that light doesn’t travel at the same speed in all directions due to aetheral drag.

They bounced light beams with mirrors to create extended paths that would at times line up or cross the aether depending upon the time of day. (Or so they believed.)

They took careful measurements – and found nothing.

The light beams maintained a constant speed. It was kind of a drag when they discovered no drag.

As George Johnson points out, the speed of light, not aether, is the universal standard.

I’m glad I read Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. It provided a historical perspective that backs up my personal viewpoints.

When a scientific or skeptical expert declares that all paranormal events aren’t extraordinary – they’re just the ordinary misunderstood -- such a person is blowing a lot of hot phlogiston, his head is stuck in the aether.


X. Dell said...

I hear you, Ray. Paradigms change slowly. Part of the work of a Thomas Kuhn was illustrating that scientists aren't completely divorced from the very human need for social standing. Thus, science has told us that lots of things were true, only to say later it wasn't. These changes took place very slowly because whole groups of scientists have to let go of the old notions. (In other words, they think to themselves , "I already learned this to be true. Why are you changing it on me?")

I, for one, don't dismiss what scientists have to say. In fact, theirs is an important measure of reality. It's just not the only one. And while science might be objective, scientists aren't. They're people like everyone else.

One thing I notice, say in UFO research, is that oftentimes debunking scientists refuse to observe what witnesses do, and fail to address their issues, their stories, or their concerns, or even their physical evidence. Instead, they assert explanations they're comfortable with. A lot of times, they offer opinions on incidents and artifact that they never examined.

The reason is simple. It's the old Freudian defense of blocking. It doesn't fit with the paradigm. And, many feel that when the facts don't fit the theory, discard the facts, or claim they aren't there.

Then again, who funds scientific inquiry into UFOs? The Ford Foundation? The Rockefeller Foundation? Industry? Endowments?

Governments certainly have. But one cannot claim they're working without an agenda.

Doug said...

Could not one argue, from a semantic standpoint, that the extraordinary is the ordinary that doesn't happen very often?

I mean, if someday UFO contact is made and begins to occur with regularity, it will cease to be extraordinary (in a manner of speaking), will it not?

Everyone will have to change the way they think, but ultimately it will change easily because there'll be no need to prove it.

In our lifetime it has gone from communication with small devices being the fantasy of Star Trek to being something you upgrade every other year, so it's no longer seen as extraordinary.

So, the pursuit of the extraordinary is better than proving the extraordinary--and then removing what made it so.

I think I went off on a tangent.

Ray said...

X. Dell:

A government without any agendas? The mind boggles.


It's OK to go off on a tangent when you use a tilde. [G]