Wednesday, 27 July 2011

On Fact and Fraud

Millikan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1923 for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect. The book On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science by David Goodstein includes a Chapter titled In the Matter of Robert Andrews Millikan, which makes interesting reading.

It is worth quoting Robert A.J. Matthews from Facts versus Factions: The use and abuse of subjectivity in scientific research, in Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle (Ed: Morris, J.) (Oxford : Butterworth) 247-282 (2000). On Millikan:
In a now-famous study, the physicist and historian Gerald Holton examined the log-books for Millikan’s experiments with the electron, and revealed that he repeatedly rejected data that he deemed “unacceptable” (Holton 1978).
However, it is also clear that Millikan had another powerful motivation for using all means to obtain a convincing determination of the electronic charge: he was in a race against another researcher, Felix Ehrenhaft at the University of Vienna. Ehrenhaft had obtained similar results to those of Millikan, but they were interspersed with much lower values that suggested that the electron was not, in fact, the fundamental unit of charge. Millikan had no such doubts, published his results, and went on to win the Nobel Prize.
Millikan’s “remarkable ability” to scent out the correct answer was clearly not as great as his apologists would have us believe. Rather more remarkable is Millikan’s ability, almost half a century after his death, to evade recognition as an insouciant scientific fraudster who won the Nobel Prize by deception [Millikan’s cavalier attitude towards scientific research is further evidenced by his dealings with his young assistant Harvey Fletcher over authorship of the key papers on the properties of the electron (Fletcher 1982) and his role in early cosmic ray studies (Crease & Mann 1996, p 150-155)]
The dangers of the injudicious use of subjective criteria is further highlighted by the aftermath of Millikan’s experiments. In the decades following his work and Nobel Prize, other investigators made determinations of the electronic charge. The values they obtained show a curious trend, creeping further and further away from Millikan’s ‘canonical’ value, until finally settling down at the modern figure with which, as we have seen, it is wholly incompatible. Why was this figure not reached sooner? The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman has given the answer in his own inimitable style (Feynman 1988, p 382):
It’s apparent that people did things like this: when they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something was wrong – and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off.
On Pauli:
Experimental science is not alone in being vulnerable to abuses of subjective criteria; theoretical advances can and have been gravely affected as well. Some of the most egregious examples centre on the influence of the brilliant but notoriously arrogant theorist Wolfgang Pauli, whose dismissive opinions of the work of a number of theoreticians led to their being denied credit for major scientific discoveries in elementary particle physics. For example, the discovery of the key quantum-theoretic concept of spin is widely ascribed to Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit. However, it was first put forward by the young American theorist Ralph Kronig, who was persuaded not to publish after being ridiculed by Pauli and informed that while “very clever”, the concept of spin “Of course has nothing to do with reality” (quoted in Pais 1991 p 244). Caustic ad hominem remarks by Pauli similarly led to the Swiss theorist Ernst Stueckelberg failing to publish his exchange model of the strong nuclear force; Yukawa subsequently published essentially identical ideas, and won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Physics. (Stueckelberg’s work on renormalisation of quantum electrodynamics met a similar fate, being later duplicated by three other theorists who went on to win the 1965 Nobel Prize for physics (Crease & Mann 1996, p 142-3)).

No comments:

Post a Comment