The history of science is the history of great revolutions. The actors are bold rebels who come charging in, waving new swords and laying waste to the status quo. “Who was that masked man?” ask astonished onlookers as they survey the carnage and drag venerable (but now useless) ideas off to be buried. When the dust settles, a new scientific hero—Galileo, Einstein, Hawking—emerges through the haze, standing—or sitting in a wheelchair—atop the vanquished ideas of what was, just yesterday, settled truths about the natural world. You gotta love the history of science.
Unfortunately, this is not the history of science.
This is what passes for history of science in a “World Civilization” course, or some such superficial survey that leaps from Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein like a child playing hopscotch. This exciting romp is not remotely the history of science, any more than home run moments are the history of baseball.
The history of science is almost entirely a history of the status quo being refined, extended, tested and retested as new technologies become available. It can be quite boring to outsiders. Take the lowly electron. It was a really big deal when the really little electron was discovered. Physicists now understood that charge was not a big gob of electricity but a set of tiny charged particles, every one of which had exactly the same charge. The discovery of the electron is the sort of thing that might get into your survey course but my guess is you have never even heard of J.J. Thomson, who discovered the electron.
In the century since the electron was discovered tremendous energies have been invested in figuring out exactly what it is like. Robert Millikan—you remember him, right?— performed a “famous” experiment getting oil drops to move in an electrical field. It was a clever way to estimate the charge on an individual electron. I spent countless hours as an undergraduate physics major trying to duplicate his result, staring through a tiny scope at dimly lit drops of oil, wondering if the story about Millikan’s assistant going blind doing this was true. In the decades since Millikan originally performed his experiment, it has been repeated every time a new technology made it possible to measure the charge on the electron to a higher level of accuracy. In the back of all our physics books we find a table informing us that the charge on an electron is −1.602×10−19 coulombs. No doubt you have that highlighted in the back of your physics book and have commented on it numerous times.
I mention this mundane example to make a point about the nature of science. Scientists spends most of their time refining their understanding of the central ideas of science, and very little time overturning those ideas. But the long period of refinement is quiet and of limited interest to outsiders who would wrongly perceive that nothing of interest is happening. Only when something disruptive occurs does everyone take notice, like a vase on a mantle falling off and shattering on the hearth. Then we all notice the formerly obscure vase. For a brief and shining moment that vase was truly exciting.
The great revolutionaries in science almost always begin as honest toilers working diligently within the status quo, making modest refinements on existing theories, extending the explanatory domain of a theory into new territory, or solving a puzzle of some sort that doesn’t quite fit into the received wisdom of the community. Virtually all of them fully understand and accept the consensus of the community and then, through some fortunate circumstance, they are presented with the golden opportunity to modify or even overturn that consensus with a radical new idea—they become the revolutionary heroes with the gleaming sword. They get to push the vase off the mantle and watch it smash. Such scientific heroes are almost never outsiders who are not even a part of the scientific community.
The Intelligent Design Movement desperately wants a scientific revolution where it topples the vase that Darwin set on the mantle and smashes it into a million pieces. Followers of ID want to be the Einsteins and the Galileos of a major breakthrough in our understanding of natural history. Rob Koons, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, endorsed William Dembski’s popular book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, with these words: “William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of Information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time. His "law of conservation of information" represents a revolutionary breakthrough.”
I am not sure what Rob Koons thinks of these comments now—he has not responded to my email—but they represent a thoroughly unrealistic view of scientific revolutionaries. William Dembski works at a Baptist Seminary; he teaches apologetics and publishes popular work with evangelical presses and not in scholarly journals. If another Newton arises out of this generation of scientists, he—or she—will not be on the faculty of a seminary writing popular books. I hasten to add that I am also not going to be the Newton of this generation. I work at a Christian College; I teach Science & Religion; I publish primarily popular work. I am nowhere near that vase needing to be smashed.
If this generation gets a Newton, it will be someone working at the heart of the scientific enterprise on ordinary scientific problems. They will hold the consensus view, with their peers, as taught to them by their mentors. They will publish in conventional journals. One day their computerized printout or digital image will have an odd glitch in it—a number will be too large, a speck of light too bright, a graph too asymmetric. They will show it to their colleagues who will puzzle with them. They will repeat the measurements several times until they dare show it to their supervisor, who will be dismissive at first but finally concede that it is worth veering off on this side road for a few weeks. Excitement will build as they work in obscurity for a while and then finally publish something that startles the scientific community, who are initially skeptical but finally come around. Ten years later a key idea has been overturned. Twenty years later they win a Nobel Prize.
That is how Newtons are born.