Those of us who’ve never donned a lab coat for any length of time tend to envision the study of science as something like a linear progression from ignorance to knowledge.
One day, we thought the earth was flat. Then, a bunch of discoveries were made, some of them involving ship-sails sighted over the horizon, and eventually a new view took hold.
Reality, of course, is messier. Science, though it lays claim to a brilliant method that has yielded a great deal of knowledge (not to mention relief from disease and disaster and other ills), is done by humans, after all.
So it’s rare that the path to knowledge is a smooth one. There’s always turbulence along the way, some backtracking, unnecessary detours driven by missed clues or overgrown egos.
Pedro Ferreira, an Oxford astrophysics professor, captures this halting dance in “The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity.” Ferreira’s book traces the general theory of relativity from its origins in the remarkable brain of a then-unheralded patent clerk through the countless scientists who have tried to squeeze real-life meaning out of Albert Einstein’s brilliant, maddening equations.
The book is also as much about the people behind the theories as the theories themselves.
Part of “The Perfect Theory’s” strength lies in its pacing. Ferreira has a writer’s sense for when he’s getting a bit too technical (general readers will be fine but those possessing an entry-level grasp of relativity, cosmology, and quantum mechanics might get a bit more out of the book), and always leavens the science with intriguing glimpses at the underlying psychological and sociological forces driving scientific progress.
In particular, he specializes in highlighting the many ways the geniuses behind the last century’s most astounding physical and astronomical findings fell victim to all sorts of biases and narrow-minded preoccupations that prevented them from seeing things as they really are.
He covers the countless arguments colorfully. At one point, referring to a mid-century debate over the origins of radio signals buzzing in the sky, Ferreira writes, “It was a clash of cultures pitting the highbrow theoretical astronomers, versed in mathematics and physics with elegant yet odd theories that explained the whole universe, against the tinkerers, the radio operators who built kits and played with electronics.”
This divide is found throughout. One of the reasons the history of astronomy and physics is so fascinating is that some of the most important theories of both fields couldn’t be tested empirically when they were first developed, simply as a result of technological limitations (plenty still can’t be — don’t get an empirically minded astronomer started about string theory).
Especially in the earlier days of relativity, before black holes were even known by that name, many astronomers made careers out of playing around with Einstein’s equations, seeing what bizarre objects popped out, and then wondering whether these objects corresponded to real-world astronomical phenomena or were mere mathematical artifacts.
In some cases, researchers got very attached to the ideas of objects they knew they couldn’t prove existed — or rejected objects suggested by the math when they didn’t fit neatly into certain scientific preconceptions. The celebrated physicist John Wheeler, for example, recalled, “For many years this idea of collapse to what we now call a black hole went against my grain. I just didn’t like it.”
Wheeler not only would be converted to a black-hole believer but would go on to be widely credited for coining the term itself. It’s remarkable to think that such a brilliant man opposed this idea simply because it “went against [his] grain.” But it won’t surprise anyone who reads “The Perfect Theory” and comes to realize not only how tricky it can be to study things that can’t be directly observed, but how much room this state of affairs leaves for human error.