"Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science." -Georges Seurat

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Why saying "Newton was Wrong!" is a Poor Argument

I've been seeing a lot of pseudoscientific rants lately that sound a lot like this: "Well, your fancy so-called scientific theories could be all wrong. Newton had the final word in physics, until Einstein came along, and then WHAMMO he re-wrote the laws of physics!!". This is a poor argument with several layers of problems.

Newton wasn't wrong, exactly. His description of the laws of physics were only approximations, but they were fantastic approximations nonetheless. We still use them today in spaceflight and many many physics calculations because they work well in almost every circumstance.

Einstein didn't "rewrite" the laws of physics, he added refinement to Newton's work. Einstein stood on Newton's shoulders, just as Newton famously stood on the shoulders of previous giants [note: not actual giants, just scientists, philosophers, teachers and other great thinkers. Some may have been tall but were no Bigfoots.]

Part of the problem may be the public image of Einstein as a wild witty dopey professor-type with frazzled hair at all times; swooping in out of nowhere to blow the physics world away by demolishing all their work for centuries. Like his genius came from being a bit wild and crazy (and maybe it did). Einstein's real brilliance was understanding and mastery of new complex mathematical tools that few others at the time were using. Even as a self-taught lone wolf genius working full-time, as a young man he was already on the cutting edge of his field in terms of understanding and interpreting the then-current research. It's much harder to be a lone genius these days, as doing much of science now requires expansive collaboration, complex and costly equipment, years or even decades of intricate study. Plus there aren't as many Swiss patent clerk positions, as one might hope.

Really, the worst part of this argument is that it implicitly compares the arguer to Einstein. Just don't do that, seriously. YOU ARE NO EINSTEIN, and I am not either, let's all accept it and just get that off the table as an arguing point and move on. Remember, some geniuses are crazy, but most crazy people aren't geniuses (they just think they are). 

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