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Physics Legends

Physics Legends
Critical Point: November 2006

The history of science is full of mythical stories that we repeat, even when we suspect that they are probably wrong. Robert P Crease recounts several and asks for yours

Richard Feynman starts his book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter with a remarkable confession. He tells a brief story about the origins of his subject – quantum electrodynamics – and then says that the "physicist’s history of physics" that he has just related is probably wrong. "What I am telling you", Feynman says, “is a sort of conventionalized myth-story that the physicists tell to their students and those students tell to their students, and is not necessarily related to the actual historical development, which I do not really know!”

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False legends

In contrast, many other common legends are entirely unfounded. Sometimes they persist because they conveniently reinforce established dogma, such as the story that the Catholic Church condemned the use of zero and Arabic numerals. Naturalists are also said to have convincingly proved evolution in action by showing in the 1950s that the increased abundance of industrial soot in the environment led to more melanic (darker, mutant) peppered moths. This experiment is now known to be badly flawed.

Other false stories are popular simply because they are fun. An example is the one about physicist Donald Glaser coming up with the idea of the bubble chamber one night at a bar after popping open a beer. A few years ago, after hearing this story one too many times, I called Glaser to ask if it were true. He assured me that it was false – he came up with the idea behind the bubble chamber via the application of cold, hard reason. However, Glaser admitted that, for sheer amusement, he once tried to see charged particle tracks in soda bottles.

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