Genius From Outside the League

I find it tremendously awe inspiring to read about work that continues on in spite of fierce opposition. Researchers or writers who bring up concepts which fall outside of so called “mainstream” academia invariably receive a fair share of ridicule if they are acknowledged at all before some traction takes hold and support for their work begins to build. Sometimes their life’s work becomes accepted and confirmation becomes undeniable. Though it’s just as likely that they are never welcomed into the world of accepted knowledge. A few eventually have their thesis accepted and incorporated into the textbooks.

Foucault’s pendulum, Paris. Photo by Ben Ostrowsky (http://www.flickr.com/photos/sylvar/70589378/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Let’s not forget that it wasn’t too long ago that the earth’s rotation was still in doubt. On January 3, 1851, Leon Foucault set about to test the rotation of the earth.

In his fascinating book Pendulum: Foucault and the Triumph of Science, Dr Amir D Aczel recounts what a struggle it was for Leon Foucault to convince the nation’s mathematics that the earth was rotating on its axis. He tells us of the struggle and eventual triumph of this self-taught physicist.

Foucault had been working on making the perfect pendulum for months.  Wires, metal cutters, measuring devices, and weights were all employed in its construction. What he finally came up with was a 2 meter long steel wire attached to the ceiling of his cellar in a way that allowed for free rotation without resulting torque. At the other end  of the wire, he attached a 5 kilogram brass bob. It was a free-swinging pendulum, suspended from the ceiling.

 Aczel goes on to tell us that: “Once the pendulum was set in motion, the plane in which it  oscillated back and forth could change in any direction. Designing a mechanism that would secure this property was the hardest  part of his preparations. The pendulum had to be perfectly  symmetric: Any imperfection in its shape or distribution of  weight could skew the results of the experiment, denying Foucault the proof he desired.

He held his breath as the pendulum began  to swing. Suddenly the wire snapped, and the bob fell heavily to  the ground. Three days later, he was ready to try again. He care-  fully set the pendulum in motion and waited. The bob swung  slowly in front of his eyes, and Foucault attentively followed every  oscillation.  Finally, he saw it. He detected the slight but clearly perceptible change he was looking for in the plane of the swing of the pendulum. The pendulum’s plane of oscillation had moved away  from its initial position, as if a magic hand had intervened and  pushed it slowly but steadily away from him. Foucault knew he  had just observed the impossible. The mathematicians—and  among them France’s greatest names: Laplace, Cauchy, and Poisson—had all said that such motion could not occur or, if it did,  could never be detected. Yet he, not a mathematician and not a trained physicist, somehow always knew that the mysterious  force would be there. And now, he finally found it. He saw a clear  shift in the plane of the swing of the pendulum. Léon Foucault  had just seen the Earth turn.”

To be told that something is impossible by none other than the top minds in one of the most intimidating disciplines could be enough to make many people quit. But this didn’t dissuade Foucault. In the end he had such a strong case that his opposers had to concede he may be on to something. The French Academy of Sciences still took their time in allowing him in as a member. It wasn’t until 1865 that his application to be elected as a member was successful.
His tenacity and determination is inspiring. His story also shows that new ideas take time to work their way into the body of accepted knowledge.
Of course after making this point I will point out that being outside “mainstream” doesn’t mean someone is right nor does it mean they are wrong. I have read many books by authors that many consider “fringe” writers. Some make a strong case, others seem like cranks and crackpots.
I find great pleasure in examining any argument, trying to get a complete picture and forming my own opinion without being influenced by the prevailing consensus. I think appeal to consensus smacks of cowardice, and if nothing else is lazy. Since the majority can be right as often as it is wrong we can’t rely on consensus for the forming our own opinions.

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