Taking the Middle Line: Two Examples from Science (Part 1)

You know when you get a great idea, and you get so excited about it that you end up creating a monster such that the follow through for the idea becomes this over-daunting task and you end up just…not doing anything? I feel that way often with this blog.

In particular, the post I’ve wanted to write for a long time would look at a common psychological theme between the following subjects: cargo cults; homosexual conversion therapies; the hindu sect known as Aghori; and vegetarianism. All four of those subjects are worthy of their own post…which is why it seems too hard to do.

OK, so instead, I decided to write this more easily digestible and fluffy piece, pointing out two separate instances where two opposing camps in science were reconciled by taking the middle road; i.e. not black, not white, but GREY!

The first, I’ll explain by talking about the 19th century scientist Ludwig Boltzmann, who had a HUGE influence in thermochemistry and physics, who was probably bipolar, and found himself on one side of debate among physicists of the time, about what the chief component of the universe was: energy or matter? Ludwig was cheering for the atomic theory, whereas others (Ernst Mach, Georg Helm, Wilhelm Ostwald) were ‘Energetics’.

I’ll let wikipedia explain the rest about Boltzman:

Boltzmann’s kinetic theory of gases seemed to presuppose the reality of atoms and molecules, but almost all German philosophers and many scientists like Ernst Mach and the physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald opposed their existence. During the 1890s Boltzmann attempted to formulate a compromise position which would allow both atomists and anti-atomists to do physics without arguing over atoms. His solution was to use Hertz’s theory that atoms were “Bilder”, that is, models or pictures. Atomists could think the pictures were the real atoms while the anti-atomists could think of the pictures as representing a useful but unreal model, but this did not fully satisfy either group. Furthermore, Ostwald and many defenders of “pure thermodynamics” were trying hard to refute the kinetic theory of gases and statistical mechanics because of Boltzmann’s assumptions about atoms and molecules and especially statistical interpretation of the second law.

Around the turn of the century, Boltzmann’s science was being threatened by another philosophical objection. Some physicists, including Mach’s student, Gustav Jaumann, interpreted Hertz to mean that all electromagnetic behavior is continuous, as if there were no atoms and molecules, and likewise as if all physical behavior were ultimately electromagnetic. This movement around 1900 deeply depressed Boltzmann since it could mean the end of his kinetic theory and statistical interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics.

[I just wanted to make an aside here, because I feel that most people don’t understand entropy as a statistical concept, and instead just think of entropy as disorder. Again from wiki: “In statistical mechanics, entropy is a measure of the number of ways in which a system may be arranged, often taken to be a measure of “disorder” (the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder). This definition describes the entropy as being proportional to the natural logarithm of the number of possible microscopic configurations of the individual atoms and molecules of the system (microstates) which could give rise to the observed macroscopic state (macrostate) of the system. The constant of proportionality is the Boltzmann constant.”]

After Mach’s resignation in Vienna in 1901, Boltzmann returned there and decided to become a philosopher himself to refute philosophical objections to his physics, but he soon became discouraged again. In 1904 at a physics conference in St. Louis most physicists seemed to reject atoms and he was not even invited to the physics section. Rather, he was stuck in a section called “applied mathematics,” he violently attacked philosophy, especially on allegedly Darwinian grounds but actually in terms of Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics that people inherited bad philosophy from the past and that it was hard for scientists to overcome such inheritance.

In 1905 Boltzmann corresponded extensively with the Austro-German philosopher Franz Brentano in hope of mastering philosophy better apparently so that he could refute its presence in science better, but he became discouraged about this approach as well. In the following year 1906 his mental condition became so bad that he had to resign his position. He committed suicide in September of that same year by hanging himself while on vacation.

I love you Boltzman…don’t cry.

Eventually Boltzman was proven correct…or I should say, both parties were shown to be correct by three papers from Einstein all written in 1905: one wherein he described the photo-electric effect (the beginning of quantum mechanics), which postulated that electromagnetic energy was also particulate (photons); another wherein he describes special relativity, and a subsequent paper that year elaborated how matter and energy were equivalent (E (energy) = M (mass…i.e. matter) C (speed of light) ^2); and the last ” concerned statistical mechanics, a field of study that had been elaborated by, among others, Ludwig Boltzmann and Josiah Willard Gibbs. Unaware of Gibbs’ contributions, Einstein extended Boltzmann’s work and calculated the average trajectory of a microscopic particle buffeted by random collisions with molecules in a fluid or in a gas. Einstein observed that his calculations could account for brownian motion, the apparently erratic movement of pollen in fluids, which had been noted by the British botanist Robert Brown. Einstein’s paper provided convincing evidence for the physical existence of atom-sized molecules, which had already received much theoretical discussion. His results were independently discovered by the Polish physicist Marian von Smoluchowski and later elaborated by the French physicist Jean Perrin.” (<- that quote comes from here)

OMG Einstein…you’re too freakin’ smart.

So yeah, a happy medium was discovered: there is matter, there is energy, and they’re BOTH somehow magically equivalent (poor Boltzman, you didn’t have to kill yourself after all. Too bad lithium didn’t show up for bipolar treatment till 1949)

Ok, this went on for too long, so I’ll do the second part – chemical or electrical explanation of neural communication – some other time…


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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