Not Quite Science
My personal shortlist of the most adorable misconceptions from the fringes of human comprehension
Medium is practically the only social media site I frequent. Sometimes I’m delighted to learn interesting things I didn’t know before; sometimes I’m left shaking my head at the trite nonsense that apparently passes for discourse for so many. Occasionally I find myself smiling wryly at earnest articles written by individuals who clearly believe they are in possession of genius but who in reality are sadly on the wrong side of the Gaussian distribution of IQ scores.
What follows is a collection of my favorite scientific misconceptions authored by poor souls who stand forever as exemplars of Pope’s axiom “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”
Ever since Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, it’s been apparent that our universe is expanding (even though, ironically, Einstein refused to accept this inevitable outcome of his calculations and introduced a “cosmological constant” to result in a static universe; a decision he later called “my greatest blunder.”). Although measurements fail to agree on the precise rate of expansion, it’s clear that the universe is indeed expanding and has been doing so since the so-called Big Bang around 13.8 billion years ago.
This fact led one undiscovered genius to conclude the following: our expanding universe is exactly like a rubber band being stretched. Therefore, there must be something outside the universe pulling on it to stretch it. As the universe is very big this means whatever is pulling it must be even bigger. Logically if we humans have to pull on an elastic band with our hands to stretch it, it follows that a god must be pulling the universe with his very big hands. And so the expansion of the universe is proof that a god exists.
Or if not a god, then at least some enormous extra-dimensional alien, maybe an alien kid who’s bored and consequently distracting himself with a game of stretch-the-universe until it snaps or it’s time for his dinner. Let’s hope for our own sake that dinnertime is a long way off.
Another towering intellect who’s sadly under-appreciated at the moment used his insight into another aspect of Relativity to come up with the ultimate health plan. As the speed of light must be constant regardless of the observer’s direction and speed of motion, this requires spacetime to be flexible. Our perception of causality is thus to a degree influenced by our motion relative to other observed reference frames also in motion, as described by the Lorenz transformations. One consequence of this is that for a stationary observer, someone moving at relativistic speed (e.g. at least 98% of the speed of light, or 296,000 km/sec) will appear to be experiencing time at a slower rate.
This is a very real phenomenon and GPS systems have to compensate for the effect in order to maintain accuracy, as time “passes” slightly faster for objects in orbit than it does for those on the ground. (Thanks to Michele Diodati for catching my error in the original version of this article.)
Our friend, who like all the other contributors will remain nameless for the sake of his family’s reputation, concluded that if time slows down due to motion then people who take up running will age more slowly than people who are entirely sedentary. While this general statement is in fact true, it’s entirely because of metabolic effects and nothing whatsoever to do with time dilation.
Nevertheless, if this misconception ends up motivating even a single additional person to acquire the habit of regular exercise, I feel our author deserves an honorable mention in the lists of the terminally confused.
We move on now to what is perhaps my absolute favorite notion: an explanation of the famous quantum double-slit experiment.
For those unfamiliar with quantum mechanics, one of the core notions is that particles behave both as point objects and as waves. A photon or an electron, for example, clearly acts as a point object; unfortunately they also behave as waves. This has curious consequences best illustrated by the double-slit experiment which, alas, has caused even quite clever people to utter some very silly notions over the years. Here’s how the double-slit experiment works:
An emitter fires a single photon or electron towards a detector. Between the emitter and the detector is a barrier in which two small slits are positioned so as to have a 50:50 chance of the photon or electron passing through either one.
When nothing is placed in the barrier to measure which slit the photon or electron passes through, the result is a classic “wave pattern interference” that clearly shows the individual particle appears to “split” and take both options at once, interfering with itself on the other side.
But when something is added to the barrier to record which slit the particle passes through, then no wave pattern interference is detected: the particle passes through one slit or the other, but not both simultaneously.
This result has puzzled physicists ever since the experiment was first performed.
But despair not, for now thanks to the insight of our unnamed genius we have a definitive answer.
Here’s what’s going on: a photon is actually two components, with the electric field and the magnetic field oscillating at right-angles to each other. According to our unsung genius, these two fields have feelings for each other and so they travel through spacetime holding hands. When they come to the double-slit, providing no one is watching them, they part company briefly so each can have a tiny solo adventure to spice up their otherwise monogamous relationship. But when someone is watching via a detector in the double-slit barrier, they keep a tight hold of each other’s hands so as to avoid moral censure. Thus when being observed they pass through a single slit together in order to maintain their reputation as a conventional and highly respectable particle-pair of whom Victorian physicists would be rightly proud.
While we can smile indulgently at these and an endless litany of similar follies, we need to remember that wacky notions are not confined to the pages of any particular publication. Both well-known smart and stable geniuses Donald Trump and Elon Musk have proposed using nuclear weapons to achieve results such as diverting tornadoes and terraforming alien planets despite the obviously lethal consequences of long-lived radioactive dust blanketing everything.
A great many influential people in various African nations have within the last thirty years proposed herbs, blood, albino bodyparts, prayers, and showers, as sure-fire cures for HIV. And how many of us fervently believe today that facemasks are the only thing standing between humanity and a pandemic that otherwise would kill everyone on the planet?
The fact is, we’ve always been a rather dim-witted species. It’s only through the efforts of a tiny number of clever people that we have all the technological magic we enjoy today, without understanding in the slightest how any of it works. So when we smile and shake our heads sadly at the ramblings of those who clearly understand nothing of what they imagine they’ve grasped, we need to remember we’re certainly doing the same thing ourselves.
Every single day.