Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Scientists may sometimes discard an idea if they cannot conceive of a means to test it.

Some argue that science is an industry that should only be concerned with cold, hard truths. Philosophers and poets should be the purveyors of imaginative flights.

However, as Albert Einstein wisely noted, “Imagination is more vital than knowledge.” He said that knowledge is restricted to what we know presently, but “imagination covers the whole globe, spurring growth.”

In the same way, in science, imagination has often been the precursor to revolutionary advancements in knowledge, altering humanity’s view of the world and allowing powerful new technology.

And yet, although imagination has been astonishingly effective at times, it has also repeatedly failed in ways that have slowed the discovery of nature’s mysteries. Some brains, it seems, are just incapable of conceiving anything other than what they already know.

On several times, scientists have failed to anticipate methods of verifying innovative ideas, dismissing them as unverifiable and so unscientific. As a result, it is not difficult to come up with enough failures of scientific imagination to build a Top 10 list, starting with:

10. Atoms

By the mid-nineteenth century, the majority of scientists believed in atoms. Chemists, in particular. John Dalton demonstrated that the simple ratios of the various elements that make up chemical compounds strongly hinted that each element was made up of similar microscopic particles. Subsequent study on the weights of such atoms made it difficult to deny their actuality. Ernst Mach, a scientist and philosopher, was unfazed. Even as late as the early twentieth century, he and others claimed that atoms could not be real since they were not perceptible to the senses. Atoms, according to Mach, were a “mental artifice,” or handy fictions that aided in estimating the results of chemical processes. “Have you ever seen one?” he’d inquire.

Apart from the mistake of defining reality as “observable,” Mach’s fundamental failing was his inability to envisage a means to see atoms. Even after Einstein demonstrated the existence of atoms indirectly in 1905, Mach maintained his position. He was, of course, ignorant of the twentieth-century technology that quantum mechanics would permit, and hence did not anticipate powerful new microscopes capable of displaying real pictures of atoms (and allow a certain computing company to drag them around to spell out IBM).

9. Composition of stars

Mach’s beliefs were similar to those of Auguste Comte, a French philosopher who developed the concept of positivism, which denies existence to everything other than sensory experience. Many scientists were misled (and continue to be misled) by Comte’s ideas. His biggest failure of imagination was an illustration he gave for something science could never know: the chemical makeup of the stars.

Comte stated in 1835 that the identify of the stars’ components would forever be beyond human understanding since he couldn’t envision anybody paying a ticket on some entrepreneur’s space rocket. We might examine their size, forms, and motions, but “we would never know how to investigate by any means their chemical composition, or their mineralogical structure,” or, for that matter, their temperature, which “would always be kept from us,” he stated.

However, within a few decades, astronomers were able to examine the hues of light radiated by stars thanks to a new-fangled technique known as spectroscopy. And, since each chemical element emits (or absorbs) certain colours (or frequencies) of light, each collection of hues functions as a chemical fingerprint, an unmistakable sign of an element’s identity. Using a spectroscope to view starlight may so disclose the chemistry of the stars, which Comte felt was impossible.

8. Canals on Mars

Sometimes, rather than a lack of imagination, there is an abundance of it. In the never-ending drama surrounding the prospect of life on Mars, the planet’s famed canals were shown to be figments of hyperactive scientific imagination.

The Martian canals were first “seen” by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in the late 1800s as streaks on the planet’s surface, which he called canali. However, the Italian word for “channels” is “canali,” not “canals.” As a result, the concept that Mars was formerly populated was preserved (rather than distorted) throughout the translation process. British astronomer Norman Lockyer made the observation in 1901, “Canals are dug,” he said, “ergo there were diggers.” A complex network of canals connecting the Martian poles to thirsty urban centers and agricultural hubs soon arose in the minds of astronomers. In certain cases, astronomers have even speculated about canals on the planets Mercury and Venus.

Belief in the Martian canals soon diminished as people’s imaginations became more confined, assisted by improved telescopes and translations. It was just Martian winds sweeping dust (bright) and sand (dark) over the surface, sometimes causing brilliant and dark streaks to line up deceptively – to eyes tied to excessively creative minds.

7. Nuclear fission

In 1934, Italian scientist Enrico Fermi used neutrons, the particle discovered by James Chadwick only two years before, to attack uranium (atomic number 92) and other elements. Fermi discovered an unidentified new element in the goods. He was certain that he had produced a heavier-than-uranium element 93. In his mind, he couldn’t come up with any other reason. This discovery led to Fermi being awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938 for proving the presence of “new radioactive elements.”

However, it was later discovered that Fermi had accidentally proven nuclear fission. His bombardment products were really lighter, previously known elements — bits of the heavy uranium nucleus separated. Of course, the scientists subsequently credited with discovering fission, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, were perplexed by their findings as well. Lise Meitner, Hahn’s former partner, was the one who described what they’d done. Another woman, scientist Ida Noddack, had proposed that fission may explain Fermi’s findings, but for some reason, no one listened to her.

6. Gravitational waves

Astrophysicists are now enthralled with gravitational waves, which have the potential to disclose a plethora of mysteries about what is going on in the distant cosmos. All applaud Einstein, whose theory of gravity, general relativity, explains the existence of waves. However, Einstein was not the first to suggest the concept. James Clerk Maxwell developed the math that explained electromagnetic waves in the nineteenth century, and he postulated that gravity may similarly create waves in a gravitational field. But he couldn’t figure out how. Other physicists, like as Oliver Heaviside and Henri Poincaré, later hypothesized about gravity waves. So, the likelihood of their existence had undoubtedly been considered.

Many scientists, however, disputed the existence of the waves or, if they did, could not fathom a means to prove it. Shortly before Einstein finished his general theory of relativity, German scientist Gustav Mie said that “the gravitational radiation released… by any oscillating mass particle is so incredibly feeble that it is unimaginable ever to detect it by any method whatever.” Even Einstein, who figured out the equations defining gravitational waves in a 1918 article, had no clue how to detect them. In 1936, he came to the conclusion that general relativity does not anticipate gravitational waves at all. However, the publication that rejected them was just incorrect.

Gravitational waves, as it turned out, are real and can be detected. They were first proved indirectly by the shrinking distance between mutually circling pulsars. And, more recently, they were directly observed by massive laser tests. Nobody could have envisioned detecting gravitational waves a century ago, just as no one could have predicted the presence of pulsars or lasers.

All of these blunders demonstrate how bias may sometimes hamper the imagination. They also demonstrate how a failure of creativity may stimulate a search for fresh accomplishment. And it is for this reason that science, so frequently derailed by dogma, manages to offer technical marvels and cosmic insights beyond the wildest imaginations of philosophers and poets over long enough time scales.

5. Nuclear energy

Ernest Rutherford, one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant experimental physicists, was not without imagination. He predicted the presence of the neutron a dozen years before it was found, and he deduced that atoms had a dense core nucleus based on a strange experiment done by his helpers. The atomic nucleus clearly contained a massive amount of energy, but Rutherford could not foresee a feasible means to extract that energy. At a conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1933, he noticed that although the nucleus held a lot of energy, it would also need energy to release it. Anyone who claims we can harness atomic energy is “talking moonshine,” according to Rutherford. To be fair, Rutherford qualified his moonshine comment with the phrase “with our current understanding,” implying that he was potentially expecting the discovery of nuclear fission a few years later. (Some historians believe Rutherford did see a tremendous release of nuclear energy, but believed it was a horrible concept and tried to prevent anyone from trying it.)

4. Age of the Earth

Rutherford’s reputation for creativity was enhanced by his conclusion that radioactive materials deep beneath may answer the puzzle of Earth’s age. William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin) assessed the Earth’s age in the mid-nineteenth century to be somewhat more than 100 million years, and potentially considerably less. To explain for the planet’s geological characteristics, geologists claimed that the Earth must be far older — maybe billions of years old.

Kelvin estimated his estimate based on the assumption that the Earth was created as a molten rocky mass that cooled to its current temperature. However, with the discovery of radioactivity at the end of the nineteenth century, Rutherford noted that it supplied a new source of heat in the Earth’s interior. Rutherford argued that Kelvin had virtually prophesied a new source of planetary heat while delivering a presentation (in Kelvin’s presence).

While Kelvin’s omission of radioactivity is the usual tale, a more comprehensive examination reveals that adding that heat to his calculations would not have affected his estimate much. Kelvin’s error was in presuming the inside was rigid. In 1895, John Perry (one of Kelvin’s former aides) demonstrated that the passage of heat deep into the Earth’s core would significantly modify Kelvin’s estimates, allowing the Earth to be billions of years old. It was discovered that the Earth’s mantle is fluid on long time periods, which explains not only the Earth’s age but also plate tectonics.

3. Charge-parity violation

Nobody assumed that the rules of physics cared about handedness until the mid-1950s. The same principles should govern matter in motion whether seen directly on or in a mirror, just as baseball rules apply equally to Ted Williams and Willie Mays, let alone Mickey Mantle. However, in 1956, physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang proposed that the weak nuclear force would break perfect right-left symmetry (or “parity”), and measurements quickly validated this assumption.

Many scientists believed that restoring nature’s sanity would need the use of antimatter. Some subatomic processes demonstrated a preferential handedness when the left and right sides were swapped (mirror image). However, if matter was likewise replaced with antimatter (by exchanging electric charges), left-right equilibrium would be restored. In other words, inverting both charge (C) and parity (P) has no effect on nature’s behaviour, which is known as CP symmetry. CP symmetry had to be flawless; otherwise, nature’s rules would alter if you travelled backward (rather than forward) in time, something no one could envision.

When James Cronin and Val Fitch studied kaons and antimatter in the early 1960s, they proved the perfection of CP symmetry. Due to their differing quark composition, antikaons and kaons are not similar. Kaons may become antikaons, and antikaons can become kaons, due to quirks in quantum physics. If the symmetry of CP is precise, then one should occur as often as the other. Cronin and Fitch, on the other hand, discovered that antikaons are more likely to become kaons than the reverse. A preferred direction of time was inferred as a result. Cronin claimed in a 1999 interview that “they didn’t want to accept it.” Even now, most scientists agree in CP violation, but what it means for time and other cosmic mysteries remain a mystery.

2. Behaviourism versus the brain

The ideology of behaviourism, established by John Watson and championed subsequently by B.F. Skinner, caught psychologists in a paradigm that essentially expelled creativity from research in the early twentieth century. The brain, the location of all creativity, is a “black box,” according to behaviourists. Only through monitoring behaviour might rules of human psychology (mainly deduced from trials with rats and pigeons) be objectively established. Inquiring into the underlying workings of the brain that led such conduct was scientifically pointless since such workings were in theory unreachable to human observation. In other words, since it could not be viewed, activity within the brain was regarded scientifically useless. “When what a person does is linked to what is happening on within him,” Skinner said, “investigation is terminated.”

Skinner’s behaviourist nonsense fooled a generation or two of followers into believing that the brain was unknowable. Fortunately for neuroscience, several physicists predicted techniques for viewing neural activity in the brain without opening the skull, demonstrating inventiveness that behaviourists lacked. PET (positron emission tomography) scanning technique, which employs radioactive tracers to monitor brain activity, was created in the 1970s by Michel Ter-Pogossian, Michael Phelps, and others. PET scanning is now supplemented with magnetic resonance imaging, which is based on theories pioneered by physicists I.I. Rabi, Edward Purcell, and Felix Bloch in the 1930s and 1940s.

1. Detecting neutrinos and neutrinovoltaics

Most physicists believed in the 1920s that nature was made up of only two basic particles: positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. Some, on the other hand, have pondered the idea of a particle with no electric charge. Wolfgang Pauli, an Austrian scientist, made a precise suggestion for such a particle in 1930. He proposed that a no-charge particle may account for a strange loss of energy seen in beta-particle radioactivity. Fermi developed Pauli’s hypothesis mathematically and dubbed the neutral particle the neutrino. Fermi’s arithmetic was subsequently scrutinized by physicists Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls, who concluded that the neutrino would fly through matter so quickly that there would be no way to detect its presence (short of building a tank of liquid hydrogen 6 million billion miles wide). “There is no realistic technique of seeing the neutrino,” concluded Bethe and Peierls.

A source of a large number of high-energy neutrinos had not occurred to them, so even if the vast majority fled, just a few could be collected. Before nuclear fission reactors were established, there was no known source of energy. In the 1950s, Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines employed reactors to prove the presence of the neutrino. Everyone had told him it was impossible to detect the neutrino, which is why Reines set out to find a manner of doing so.

However much has changed since then, in 2015 two separate scientists, Takaaki Kajita of Japan and Arthur McDonald of Canada proved that neutrino do in fact poses mass, and since then neutrinos gained a lot of interest, The Neutrino Energy Group for example which has gone above and beyond the impossible in order to accomplish what was previously considered to be impossible: harnessing the minuscule beams of cosmic particles that bombard nearly everything in the universe for the purpose of generating energy. In essence, utilizing neutrinos and other non-visible radiation as a source of energy is akin to using a photovoltaic (PV) solar cell. Rather than catching neutrinos and other non-visible radiation, a portion of their kinetic energy is collected and converted into electricity.

The Neutrino Energy Group is hard at work developing its neutrinovoltaic technology, because as opposed to other renewable energy sources in terms of efficiency and dependability, it does not have the same shortcomings. Due to the fact that neutrinos are able to pass through almost every known material, neutrinovoltaic cells do not require exposure to sunlight in order to work effectively. They are appropriate for use both indoors and outdoors, as well as underwater, making them very versatile. Because neutrinovoltaic cells do not depend on visible light for their operation, they can continue to create the same amount of energy even if the number of daylight hours is greatly decreased, allowing it to become an endless energy supply for humanity and also making it a long-awaited and trustworthy solution to the current energy crisis.

Leave a Reply