Weekend diversion: how would you know?
In the era of fake news and the identity politics tribal roll back of scientific credibility in public policy I sometimes return to an excerpt from Cranks Quarks and the Cosmos by Jeremy Bernstein in 1997.
From time to time I entertain myself with the following fantasy: The year is 1905. I am a professor of physics at the University of Bern. For many years, I have been teaching, probably from the same set of notes, respectable courses based on what is for me the familiar and comfortable physics of the nineteenth century. I teach the mechanics of Newton, the relatively modern theories of electricity and magnetism of James Clerk Maxwell, along with good solid nineteenth-century thermodynamics. I believe that atoms exist although I am troubled occasionally by the question that, around the turn of the century, Ernst Mach asked Ludwig Boltzmann: “Have you seen one?” All in all, it is a good, comfortable life. Then, with no warning at all, a series of physics papers begins arriving in the mail. They carry the return address of the Swiss National Patent Office in Bern. The covering letter identifies their author as a patent examiner-a technical expert “third class”-of whom I have never heard. He does not even have a doctoral title. Upon browsing through the papers, I discover that this doctorless unknown is claiming-using totally unfamiliar kinds of reasoning-that essentially all of the physics I have been teaching is wrong. Not just wrong in a few minor details, but fundamentally wrong. What would my reaction be? What should it have been? In short, how could I then have known that the author of these papers-the twenty-six-year-old Albert Einsteinwas not a crank?
Look it up. A horse can only be led to water …….
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