Month: April 2017

Wilde vs. Swift on Disagreement

Oscar Wilde once said that to disagree with three quarters of the British public was a prerequisite of sanity. Although Jonathan Swift probably put the idea better when he wrote that one can recognize a true genius by the following sign: all the dunces are in a confederacy against him. Wilde and Swift agree that a mere disagreement is no reason to change one’s own beliefs. They agree that  if you find yourself up against a large number of people who think you’re wrong, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. That seems a matter of common sense, but why? (more…)

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Eureka Moments

Scientists go about trying to collect evidence that can be brought to bear on disputes between rival theories. If I accept the abiogenic theory of petroleum origins, whereas you accept the biogenic theory, then there is a simple way we can settle our dispute. We can try to find evidence of petroleum originating deep in the Earth’s crust, in a layer that cannot plausibly contain fossil deposits. This evidence would favour the abiogenic theory over the biogenic theory, and our dispute would be settled. But of course, there is more to science than just collecting evidence. Scientists don’t just collect evidence and write up papers for peer review; they also come up with the theories in the first place. And while the quest for relevant evidence is largely methodical, rational and logical, the creation of a new theory is largely spontaneous, whimsical and imaginative. (more…)

From Mysterious “Spyglass” to Reliable Telescope

Once upon a time, in 1610, Galileo pointed a telescope at Jupiter and discovered that Jupiter had four moons. This event is commonly regarded as the first real triumph for the Copernican theory—the theory that the Sun, and not the Earth, sat at the central point of the Universe. The discovery of Jupiter’s moons was revolutionary, unexpected and mysterious. It turned thousands of years of cosmology on its head.  (more…)