March 10, 2004: A moment with...

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Michael Lemonick


Evolution, relativity, dark matter, the big bang – all of these breakthroughs cut against the grain of scientific thought. Can science distinguish between true genius and wild imagination? Michael Lemonick, a senior science writer for Time magazine and author of Echo of the Big Bang (Princeton, 2003), will examine that question and others with students in his new freshman seminar, They Laughed at Einstein: How Science Responds to Cranks and Visionaries. He spoke with PAW’s Brett Tomlinson.

How did you come up with the idea for your new seminar?

For the past four years, I’ve taught a freshman seminar with Professor Edwin Turner on science and the media. We looked at the relationship between how science is portrayed in the media and how accurate it is. Both he, as a scientist, and I, as a science journalist, have the experience of getting mail from people with ideas that they claim are brilliant new theories about the universe. We turned it into one of the topics in the course. You assume that somebody who sounds like a nut is a nut, but how do you know for sure? A lot of theories that revolutionized science were at first dismissed by scientists as crazy.

What are some challenges in separating visionaries from cranks?

The criteria we use are not necessarily valid. For example, the standard objection to E.S.P. is “How could it work? We don’t know of any waves that could go from one brain to another.” And that’s exactly the same objection scientists made to the theory of continental drift in the early 1900s. They said, “Africa and South America fit together if you put them together. That’s very nice, but that requires you to move an entire continent, and that’s ridiculous. There is no way you can move an entire continent.” It turns out that there is a way, and Alfred Wegener [who proposed the idea of continental drift] was right. So the fact that there is no known mechanism for something to work doesn’t mean it’s not true.

As a science journalist, can you make reasonable judgments?

It’s very tough, because I’m not a physicist. If somebody shows me a new theory of physics, I have no way of evaluating whether it’s crazy or not. I have ways of evaluating whether it might not be crazy. There’s a well-known episode in the mid-90s where two eminent chemists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, made the announcement that they had discovered cold fusion. What they were saying went against everything I’d read and everything I knew about fusion. But they’re not just some guys operating out of a garage someplace. They’re real scientists with real reputations. You have to at least raise the question of whether or not they may be right. [Their finding has been dismissed by most scientists.] The role of the media is to try and let people know about important new developments, even if they are from outside the mainstream, but not to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.

Has science become any better at spotting visionary work?

I don’t know. My students and I are really going to explore these questions together, because it’s not a topic that a lot has been written about. That’s what makes the freshman seminar unique. So we’ll have to let you know at the end.

The title of the course, you admit, is based on a misconception. Explain.

It’s something that cranks often say – “They laughed at Einstein, but he was right. Now you should listen to me.” But Einstein’s theories were accepted very quickly, even though he was just a patent clerk and it was a radical rethinking of space and time. It just was so well grounded in physics.

After studying economics as an undergraduate at Harvard, how did you become a science journalist?

I was interested in science, but I didn’t like doing science. It wasn’t until several years after graduation that I finally put it together that a way for me to be involved in science at a level I was comfortable with, and also to use the skills I had, rather than the skills I wished I had, was to do science journalism. One thing that my father [late Princeton physics professor and dean of the faculty Aaron Lemonick *54] gave me was a sense that science is not impossible to understand, even for someone who doesn’t know all the math and hasn’t done all of the experiments. You really can explain it in a way that people can understand. I translate from science-ese to English, with the help of the scientists.

Your three books are all related to astronomy and cosmology. Why are the mysteries of the universe so intriguing?

They’re literally cosmic questions. They’re the most fundamental questions. If the Earth disappeared tomorrow and all of us, all of our medicine, art, music, culture, and ecosystem, vanished, the universe would still go on. Stars would keep exploding. The universe would keep expanding. When I go to Arizona, to huge expanses of mountains, or to the ocean, I feel how small I am in relation to these huge things. With the universe, it’s the same idea. I find it very comforting that my troubles are a very minor deal compared with all this.


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