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My feelings on people who think that imagination is more important than knowledge are well-known. These people simply are parroting Einstein’s phrase without understanding the context and implications. To prove that, I will cite two specific examples that I’ve encountered personally. These either came to me via direct contact with the person who made such claims or via one of the many e-mails that I’ve received through the years. None of these were made up, even though I am relying on my recollection of the events.
Case 1: Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics
This was brought to my attention by someone I met at a dinner party once he found out that I was a physicist. I’ve tackled this many times here on PF, but here it is again.
The argument comes from the apparent “understanding” of two things: (i) life beings are “ordered” structure and (ii) 2nd Law of Thermodynamics reflects an increase in entropy or, to put it crudely, disorder.
Now, I will not go into detail on why equating entropy with the disorder is inaccurate (that will be saved for another time). So let’s assume that both (i) and (ii) are correct. ID advocates point to the fact that if Evolution did happen, it implies a trend towards the order of our Earth system. Random distribution of atoms and molecules in primordial Earth somehow forms ordered and more sophisticated conglomeration that eventually forms life forms. Thus, the earth went from disorder to order. This clearly violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and thus, is not very likely. So evolution cannot be the explanation for life.
Again, such an argument is being made without an understanding of the 2nd Law, or even basic thermodynamics in the first place. The 2nd Law clearly states that in an ISOLATED SYSTEM (no energy or any kind going in and out), entropy cannot decrease. The earth is certainly NOT an isolated system. In fact, the earth DEPENDS predominantly on one source of external energy – the sun! So even if we consider the most simplified system, we have to consider the sun and the earth as the complete isolated system, not just the earth alone. Within this system, there is nothing to prevent one part of the system to have a lower entropy with time (example: Carnot cycle). Thus, even if the earth does really have a lowering of entropy, this certainly does not violate Thermodynamics’ 2nd Law.
One would be surprised that, even when this is already explained in several articles and books, that there are still numerous websites supporting creationism/ID that still carry this argument (do a google search if you don’t believe me). Either the authors are not aware of how ridiculous such an argument is, or they are hoping that the readers are not aware of it, or not good in simple thermodynamics. This isn’t a stretch of the imagination because the general public does not have any significant understanding of basic thermodynamics principles and thus, can easily be fooled into thinking that physics has made evolution impossible! It costs nothing to perpetuate the lie.
Case 2: Anti-gravity effects of heat.
Having been on the ‘net for a very long time, I get asked often to look at some rather outrageous claims being made by a lot of people, many of them in need of serious psychiatric help. This one is a doozy from quite a few years ago.
A guy had a coil of wire stuffed into a cylinder (I think a brass cylinder). The two ends of the wire stuck out on the opposite ends of the cylinder. The cylinder was suspended from the ceiling by some cables. He then connected a heating element to the end of the wire at the bottom of the cylinder. The moment he turned on the heating element, he started time. He has a thermocouple of some kind monitoring the temperature at the other end of the wire. As soon as the temperature had risen by 50 C (I don’t quite remember the exact number so I made this up), he stopped time. Call this Time A.
Next, he connected the heating element to the top end of the wire. He repeated the experiment, this time monitoring the temperature of the bottom end of the wire till the temperature has changed by 50 C also. Call this Time B.
He noticed that Time A is shorter than Time B. He said that this means that the heat in the conductor can travel faster upwards than downwards. His conclusion was that he has discovered an anti-gravity effect and that there was an anti-gravity component to heat. [Honest! This is what was said! You can’t make up idiotic statements like this!]
This is where having just a little knowledge can result in something hysterical. Anyone who has studied physics can immediately see two very obvious problems (there may be more) with this interpretation:
The inside of the cylinder is at atmospheric pressure and not in some level of a decent vacuum. So by heating from below, a heat convention can easily carry some of the heat upwards, thus heating the top end faster.
2. Cooling gradient
This is the more important aspect. I asked this person (yeah, I actually made contact with him) if he waiting for the wire to cool down back to room temperature before he did the 2nd part of the experiment. He said, no, he continued right on. This means that he had no clue that the rate of heat loss depends on the temperature gradient of an object with its surrounding. Heating an object in the air from 20 C to 70 C is not the same as heating it from 50C to 100 C, even though the temperature change is identical. As the temperature of the object increases, the temperature difference between it and the surrounding also increases, and so will the rate of heat loss. This is the straightforward law of cooling. So of course he would take longer to heat the 2nd part since he is starting off at a higher temperature!
We teach physics majors all the things that are known and can already be explained, NOT because we want them to be able to mimic and repeat all of them when they become physicists. We teach them those things so that they will KNOW when they encounter something new and unexplained. You cannot know what you are observing or discovering is new if you don’t already have a clear idea of what is known and can already be explained! This person that I just described lacked the knowledge to know that what he thought was “new” can, in fact, be explained quite simply based on existing ideas. He certainly had a vivid imagination, but it is nothing more than mere ignorance of the knowledge he did not have.
Moral of the stories: Many members on here often complain about our strict PF policy, especially on our prohibition against simply spewing out one’s “theory” or idea without first learning about basic stuff. The most popular argument given is that we don’t know where the next important “discovery” will be made and that we must cater to such possibilities from these amateurs. This is, of course, wishful thinking since that hasn’t happened in 100 years of physics. What I’ve done is show two specific, actual examples of why many (if not all) of such “discoveries” are really nonsensical and really aren’t new. They are based on misunderstanding, lack of understanding, pure laziness, and lack of knowledge. When these are combined with a vivid imagination, things go wild and wrong very quickly and easily.
Accelerator physics, photocathodes, field-enhancement. tunneling spectroscopy, superconductivity