Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Gone emeritus.....

Andrew Dessler has some serious comments about the outbreak of skeptic emeriti. He concludes that they simply are clueless on matters which they are pontificating (ok, Andrew is much nicer than I am) and have neither the time or the motivation to come up to speed.

I would offer another take, one that I first put into the comments at John Fleck's Inkstain (this is one of Eli's Golden Oldies)

Increasingly Gray, et al. remind me of Ernst Mach at the turn of the 20th century when atomic theories were evolving. I think Achenbach’s take down was right.

These sort of things always repeat themselves. It is difficult for us to conceive, but the existence of atoms was not settled at the turn of the 20th century, and what evidence existed was indirect. Many scientists whose intuition was trained in the time when theories based on continua dominated physics found it impossible to accept atomicity. They prefered their intuition to their lying eyes.

My grandfather was a young man at the time, just married, and that for me is a marker of how rapidly our understanding and control of nature has advanced in a short time. I start my intro chem classes by telling my students about all the new technologies that have come into existence in his lifetime, that of my parents and mine. It provides context.

For example, when I took general chemistry we were still using the old Mendeleev form of the periodic table which is based on the stoichiometry of the oxides and hydrides. Today. of course, we use the table based on the quantum solution of the Schroedinger Eq.

In other words, by training and experience, many of the emeriti are simply not capable of the conceptualization they need to deal with the new pardigms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Then again, there are some Emeritus professors (the late Hans Bethe of Cornell) who continue to make important contributions to their fields long after they officially "retire."

Then again, Bethe was exceptional, by any standard. Somehow, he maintained the open mind of young child until the day he died and this showed in his fresh approach to scientific subjects years (sometimes decades) after they had been "settled."