You Can Be My Wingman Any Time.

Joshwah asks

All fields of science have their mavericks: people who are prepared to run against the grain of consensus to deliver a startling insight that changes the paradigms about how we think about stuff. To what extent have mavericks shaped astrophysics, and to what extent to you think that astrophysics has benefited from anti-orthodoxy when compared to other disciplines?

Depends on what you mean by “maverick”, really. If you’re talking about people who bravely pushed a theory in the face of the entire scientific establishment telling them they were wrong and then, after several years of toil, being dramatically proven right by some hitherto unsuspected physical phenomenon, then I have to say I don’t think that’s ever really happened – at least not while we’ve had the modern scientific method around, anyway.

To what degree this is down to observer bias I do not know. I have a nagging feeling that histories of science tend to whitewash things with the benefit of hindsight and do not paint an accurate picture of the debates that might have raged over things like relativity and quantum mechanics. In general, though, scientific paradigm shifts happen in one of two ways:

1)     It becomes obvious that an existing paradigm is incorrect or incomplete in some way. Some scientists actively go looking for a new one, and when it is found it assumes the place of the old paradigm with reasonably little fuss because everyone knew there was something up it. This is more or less what happened with relativity – despite the theory making great waves in the press, it gained a certain level of acceptance by the scientific establishment astonishingly quickly because it was self-evidently better thanNewton’s theory of the universe. There was plenty of debate over it, of course, but once it had been tested on actual real-world things like gravitational lensing the opposition to general relativity more-or-less vanished. This is how science is supposed to work, and so we’ll call this the ideal case.

2)     It is not immediately obvious that an existing paradigm is flawed. Evidence to the contrary may mount up over the years, but in the absence of a single incontrovertible result that proves otherwise defenders of the old paradigm will always find some way to explain away the discrepancies in their world view. This is the non-ideal version of the paradigm shift, because the eventual acceptance of the new theory has absolutely sod-all to do with science. What happens here is that young scientists who are coming into the field with very few pre-formed opinions will favour the new theory, which is more correct. Older scientists who have lived with the existing paradigm for years – and, more importantly, who may have reputations built on it – will naturally favour what they know over any upstart theories attempting to knock it off of its perch. Eventually the old scientists die, and the young ones finally get to rewrite all the textbooks and switch out the old theory for the new one.

The best example of the second one1 is the Alvarez father and son team (and others) who found a whole bunch of iridium in sedimentary rock laid down during the Cretaceous-Paleogene period that indicated an asteroid impact had given the Earth a bloody good thump at around about this time, which would explain why so many species happened to vanish from the fossil record more-or-less simultaneously.  This was back in 1980. It was a theory that captured the popular imagination and gained widespread public acceptance very quickly, but you would not believe the scientific rows over the Alvarez hypothesis that went on in the background. Geologists were pissed because Luis Alvarez was a Nobel prize-winning physicist who had worked on the Manhattan project, and not a fellow geologist – and now here he was solving one of the great geologic questions of the age. Meanwhile physicists were up in arms over the idea that a single asteroid impact could cause so much devastation on a global scale. It wasn’t until the Shoemaker-Levy impacts on Jupiter in 1994 that the dissenting physicists finally shut up, and it was only three years ago – March 2010 – that a scientific panel did a comprehensive literature review and finally agreed that an asteroid impact was the most likely culprit behind the K-T extinction event. The scientists on that panel were just starting their careers when the theory was originally proposed, and it took them thirty years to declare competing theories like massive volcanism dead and buried.2

So the problem behind this question is that given the way science tends to work, the scenario you’re envisaging rarely – if ever – happens. If an existing paradigm proves resistant to change then it’s only time and a gradually-mounting weight of evidence that will eventually cause it to collapse, and not the efforts of any single scientist or group of scientists, no matter how energetic they are. That being said, I do think mavericks have existed in the field of astrophysics, although not quite in the way you might think. If you go back to the first type of paradigm shift – the one where it all goes relatively smoothly – there’s always a group of die-hards who will continue to challenge it even after the new theory has become prevailing scientific orthodoxy. Much of the time these people are publicity-hungry quacks or have otherwise vested interests in speaking out against the new status quo, but there’s a notable few who have had particularly well thought-out problems with the new paradigm and spent a considerable amount of time picking holes in it.

These people are rare – off the top of my head I can only think of Fred Hoyle’s resistance to the Big Bang theory and Einstein’s assault on quantum mechanics, although I’m sure there are others who are substantially less famous and whose work went largely unremarked upon in the history books – but their dissent is genuinely useful. By asking awkward questions they poked holes in areas where the new paradigm was particularly weak. This prompted the next generation of scientists to spend a decade or two running around trying to patch said holes up, and the theories are stronger for it. Blind resistance in the face of overwhelming evidence is stupid, but blind acceptance of a theory is just as bad and somebody has to play devil’s advocate.

You might think there’s little difference between advancing a new paradigm that nobody thinks is true and resisting one that everyone thinks is true. Either case sets you at odds with the rest of the scientific establishment, but there is a crucial difference: the former potentially has a great payoff in that you probably get your name stuck to the theory for the rest of human history, and failing to get it adopted isn’t the end of the world since posterity will eventually prove you right. The latter carries the danger that even though your criticism might eventually be constructive and even necessary, future generations view you as something of a backwards-thinking luddite – which is pretty much what happened to Hoyle and even Einstein in his later years. In a field where reputation is everything this is something that matters, and while it can be hard to tell the difference between one of the mavericks prepared to criticise the current sacred cow of science and a curmudgeonly old stick-in-the-mud (and I’m not saying there isn’t a significant overlap between the groups) it’s nevertheless something that only a few scientists have the guts or the pull to do in a conspicuous manner.

As to your question of to what degree mavericks have shaped the development of astrophysics in particular, my answer would have to be: no more than any other field, and probably less than most of them. Astrophysics is a discipline based on extreme cunning and a lot of what-ifs, and even then it’s not a hundred percent clear that what you’re looking at is even real. As a field it’s very fuzzy around the edges, and not the sort of thing much given over to decisive swings in the way we look at the universe because there’s always room to argue around the shortcomings of a particular theory. It’s had its fair share of personalities and visionaries, true, but it’s been the case for the last century or so that astrophysics is a consensus science. One scientist can argue his or her pet theory, but they’d have to shout pretty loudly to be heard over all the other scientists doing the same thing. Astrophysics is a very democratic branch of science, in the purest sense of the word, and it’s rather difficult for a single individual to alter the status quo one way or the other unless they’re armed with some very conclusive experimental results.


  1. Well, okay, the one I know best as an impact scientist.
  2. Obviously it would have been even worse for science if everyone had simply accepted the Alvarez hypothesis without question in 1980, but I think thirty years is pushing things just a little bit too far.
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4 thoughts on “You Can Be My Wingman Any Time.

  1. Gap Gen says:

    Interesting article. I’d add Empire of the Stars by Arthur Miller to your list of examples of venerable scientists blocking progress – it’s largely about how Chandrasekhar, and hence progress on neutron stars and black holes, was blocked by Eddington. It probably poisoned Chandrasekhar’s entire career, which is a shame as he was a great scientist.

    There are people who have brilliant insights, which persists to this day in some form or another, although to really strike it big you need a relatively untapped field in something where experimental evidence is forthcoming in your lifetime (so maybe not string theory), which is more and more difficult to find as the scientific community grows and our body of knowledge expands, but it’s still possible. But most people who send e-mails around to physics depts saying I HAVE AN AMAZING THEORY YOU ARE ALL WRONG are crackpots.

    Also, I literally get e-mails every week in the summer saying “now it is time for volleyball”.

    • Hentzau says:

      The thing is that if there’s experimental evidence to be found someone somewhere has likely done the experiment. It’s only serendipitous discoveries (like the Alvarez’s) or stuff that requires huge amounts of money (like CERN) that still elude us; the former you can’t really account for and the latter is never down to just one person.

      • Gap Gen says:

        I think you still get small teams working on stuff, but granted, fundamental physics is a huge industry now; you can’t build an LHC in your basement, for sure.

        Also, depends what you mean by big breakthroughs. For example, you still get stuff being named after people who are still practicing scientists (Silk damping and the Magorrian relation, for example, off the top of my head), but these are both effects that probably wouldn’t interest non-astronomers much. Also, I suspect that in this age you wouldn’t get stuff you discover named after you quite so much.

        But sure, none of this is “maverick” per se, and even people who have genius ideas that have the good fortune to be correct work through the usual peer review channels. The “maligned outcast” type is usually a crackpot or a fundamentalist Christian trying to prove that evolution is satanic or whatever.

  2. Josh says:

    Thanks, this was interesting. Although I have a pretty strong lay appreciation for science, I’m as interested in scientists and the stories that come from the practice of the field (arts student innit), so stories like Alvarez’ are interesting to me,

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