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Errors by great minds in theoretical physics

  1. Sep 5, 2011 #1

    It is sometimes stated that the great minds of theoretical physics also made many mistakes, and were not afraid to do so, since you have to dare to make mistakes if you want to do some original thinking; but the errors are forgotten, and the good things are remembered. Now my question is: can someone give me examples of such errors? Or where I can find them?

    Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2011 #2


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    Just two most obvious and famous:

    Newton: snooker-ball like explanation of Opticks
    Einstein: refusal to accept quantum nonlocality (EPR paradox, spooky actions)
  4. Sep 5, 2011 #3
    Phlogiston and the Caloric Theory by Becher and Stahl. Is this the reason Spanish, and I presume other romance languages, refer to something as having heat instead of being hot?
  5. Sep 5, 2011 #4
    How about Einstein's cosmological constant? That may count as a double blunder if it turns out to be necessary after all.
  6. Sep 5, 2011 #5
  7. Sep 5, 2011 #6
    It may not strictly count as a blunder, but Newton's "experiments" in alchemy were driven by a belief that he could convert base metals into gold. Of course, the essential facts underlying modern chemistry were completely unknown to him. This is known to be possible today though nuclear fusion although it's probably not technically feasible and in any case would far too expensive to make sense (even at $1800/ounce).
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2011
  8. Sep 5, 2011 #7
    Then why having cold instead of lacking heat?
  9. Sep 5, 2011 #8
    I read one speculation that the alchemists might have figured out how to turn microscopic quantities of radioactive mercury into radioactive gold. Although we think of quantum mechanics being discovered by Planck and radioactivity by Curie it makes you wonder just how many weird little discoveries people might have made over the eons that just never made it into the history books.

    P.S.- I agree with xts, Newton's optics and Einstein's rejection of Indeterminacy. Einstein himself once complained that he should have figured out Indeterminacy from his own photo-electric experiment decades earlier.
  10. Sep 5, 2011 #9
    Slightly off topic, but I read it was actually done. This was reported in an old issue of Popular Mechanics from the late 40's (which I no longer have, unfortunately). As you say, it was astronomically expensive given the tiny amount they produced and represented no improvement on simply mining what there already is.
  11. Sep 5, 2011 #10
    So are Einstein's only blunders the static universe and QM (although I thought the jury was still out on the latter, at least partially)? (wuliheron can you give a reference for that quote?)
  12. Sep 5, 2011 #11
    I read a biography of Maxwell a few years back in which it was reported that his original approach to magnetic fields was to model them as physical mechanisms, and that he published one or two papers using this mechanistic model before he realized it was better to think of them more abstractly.

    Edit: I also recall reading a quote from Lord Kelvin to the effect that man could not achieve flight (referring to the quest for airplanes), that the physics were stacked against it being possible.
  13. Sep 5, 2011 #12
    Aristotle and his geocentric universe, a concept which lasted for perhaps 20 centuries.
  14. Sep 5, 2011 #13
    Copernicus and his heliocentric universe that lasted about 2 centuries depending on how you count. Astronomers came gradually to the idea that the sun is a star. Also, his circular planetary orbits which lasted about 40 years until Kepler found them to be ellipses. Bohr's atom with planetary electrons might be considered. Then there's Snyder's theory of inverse motion which didn't even get the mandatory 15 minutes.
  15. Sep 5, 2011 #14
    Eh? I still subscribe to this.
  16. Sep 5, 2011 #15


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    The ultra-violet catastrophe and Rayleigh-Jeans law are obsolete intermediary physics in the same vein as the Bohr model of the hydrogen atom.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultraviolet_catastrophe" [Broken]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohr_model" [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  17. Sep 5, 2011 #16
    Sorry, I can't remember where I heard that quote from Einstein. If I remember correctly it was just something he said casually to a reporter but, of course, by then people hung on his every word.
  18. Sep 5, 2011 #17


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    Well define "blunders" and "mistakes". Most research time is devoted to spending time on the wrong answer. Not many people bother keeping track of mistakes and dead-end paths because the right answers are usually the most interesting!
  19. Sep 5, 2011 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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    And promising his wife the money if he won a Nobel prize.
  20. Sep 5, 2011 #19


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    I believe Einstein considered the Nobel prize money as sort of unofficial alimony payment so he could be with his new girlfriend. I may be wrong, but I don't think so. He was certain the prize would eventually be his.


    P.S. Her name was Milena Maric, see time line of his life http://www.shmoop.com/albert-einstein/timeline.html".
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
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