• Paul W. Smith

Common Sense

According to the Internet, the phrase “Common sense is not so common” originated with a Frenchman – Francois-Marie Arouet – who was a leading figure during the Age of Enlightenment. Francois, who had a knack for catchy phrases, began writing them at the age of 12. Eighteenth Century authorities were not always amused, and he often found himself in and out of the Bastille. He eventually moved to London and adopted the pen name Voltaire.

For those of us who work in the STEM fields, common sense is frequently the starting point from which we design our hypotheses and launch our experiments. The process, loosely defined as the “scientific method”, first appeared c. 1600 BCE, but is generally credited to Aristotle. The great Greek philosopher believed that because the world is a real thing, the best way to discern the truth is by experiencing it.

Such empiricism is the foundation upon which the scientific community has built its enviable reputation, reinforced by the rigor with which the method is applied, peer reviewed, and communicated. ”Follow the science” is an oft-heard refrain when complex choices present themselves.

While science has made contributions that changed the course of humankind, not all its discoveries have been trustworthy; there have been some notable failures along the way. Rarely has the path to any scientific discovery been without a few missteps, but some results received far too much credibility before eventually being debunked.

Attaching a famous name to a scientific discovery may add gravitas where none is warranted. One of the most respected physicists of his time, William Thompson (aka Lord Kelvin) was known for his contributions to the study of thermodynamics. Scientists he deemed “soft” (e.g., biologists and geologists) opined about an ancient earth, and so it was only natural for a “hard” physicist to try and prove them wrong. Noting that the once molten earth was cooling, Kelvin used his thermodynamics calculations to estimate that the planet could be no more than 20-40 million years old. His arrogance and pubic influence further underpinned this “truth.”

Lord Kelvin’s bluster held fast until the advent of radiometric dating which provided a more accurate method for estimating the age of things. We know now that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, and Kelvin should have confined himself to his eponymous temperature scale.

Even as renowned a physicist as Albert Einstein was not immune to scientific blunders. Albert was known for his elegant theories of General and Special Relativity, where he wrestled with the effects of gravity, mass and the speed of light. He also went along with a substantial number of his contemporaries in believing that the universe was static.

As great at Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was, however, there was one catch; in order for it to work the universe had to be either contracting or expanding. He fixed the apparent contradiction by conjuring the cosmological constant, known in layman’s terms as a fudge factor. As gravity pulled the entire universe inward, this cosmological constant provided the repulsive force that kept everything from collapsing.

True to Aristotle’s vision, empirical data once again overruled learned speculation. Edwin Hubble’s 1929 observation of the red-shift of galaxies proved that they were in fact moving away from us, consistent with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity but rendering his cosmological constant obsolete. When faced with the data, Einstein admitted his mistake.

The last example is perhaps the most familiar. Prior to their press conference in 1989, the names Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were little known outside of their own specialty field of electrochemistry. That quickly changed when they announced to the world that they had achieved “cold fusion”, basically doing on the kitchen table what the Sun accomplishes at a temperature of around 27 million degrees. In spite of much well-deserved scientific skepticism, the world wanted their claim to be true because it could lead to an essentially endless supply of clean energy.

It was little more than a month later, after independent attempts to duplicate the results failed, that the energy spikes reported by Pons and Fleischmann were attributed to tritium contamination in their apparatus. Instead of receiving the Nobel Prize for their work, the two electrochemists became forever branded as the originators of “Fusion Confusion.” Shortly thereafter, work on building enormous multi-billion-dollar fusion reactors resumed.

Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle recommended that we pay attention to the real world and base our conclusions on what we see. While a great reputation or the promise of an epic breakthrough are compelling, we should always be wary of results that don’t pass the ever-reliable smell test. Good science requires innovation, knowledge, experience, patience, hard work, and peer review along with a healthy dose of common sense.

Voltaire himself said it best – “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetWorkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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