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Have you heard the one about the bad scientists who called the good scientists’ science bad science? Like so many historical goings-on recorded since recording became a thing, it is just one more preposterous example of bringing ad hominem to its illogical conclusion rather than accepting an inalienable truth in the cause of progress.
These bad scientists were Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark; Nobel laureates no less, who would, for example, deny Einstein’s theory of relativity because he was Jewish. Lenard and Stark rejected E=mc2 with the rest of progressive Jewish science, which they believed was in direct contradiction to the unsullied and honest Teutonic mind, ergo, unnationalistic. All those fancy formulae extrapolating relativity and quantum theory were a bit too shifty for the untarnished Lenard and Stark.
Now you are beginning to realise that this pair had a severe case of right-wingedness, proving that not all theoretical physicists are geniuses. Anti-Semitic, anti-relativist, anti-quantum theory Nazis, they did not have a world view. No, they had a German view, or to put it more accurately, a jingoistic German view.
In 1936, Lenard published his ridiculous tome: Deutsche Physik. In the preface, he broadened the definition of Deutsche Physik to Aryan or Nordic physics. He unscientifically postulated that approaches to the practice of science were determined by race. He was a veteran of this claptrap though; back in 1924, he and Stark co-authored a praise of Hitler and his henchmen, who they described as,‘God’s gift from times of old when races were purer, people were greater, and minds were less deluded.’
Like the Nazis, four hundred years later, the Inquisition had ways of making you squeal.
Lenard and Stark only had time for the science practiced by the ‘old race’ and held a special contempt for what they called Jewish science, practiced apparently by those who could not trace their lineage back to the primordial dawn of civilization. Supporters of German physics espoused their diatribe in their preferred journal – Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft – a kind of Breitbart of its day.
Making Scientists Squeal
Three hundred years earlier, Galileo Galilei, the ‘Father of Modern Science’ had his own Lenard and Stark types to contend with. Galileo supported the Copernican theory of 1543 that the earth and planets revolve around the sun. Turning his new-fangled telescope towards the sky was almost Galileo’s undoing. In 1610, what he saw through that telescope confirmed what Copernicus believed; not the best of news if you were a practicing Catholic living in a Catholic country.
His realisation upended the established order set out by the Catholic Church, (with a little help from Aristotle, the Church’s philosopher of choice). This heliocentric belief demoted planet earth to being a bit-part player and promoted the sun to kingpin. Heliocentric beliefs pretty much negated Holy Scripture, and burnt a hole of indignation into the hearts and minds of those prickly Inquisition chaps. Like the Nazis, four hundred years later, the Inquisition had ways of making you squeal.
In 1616, Galileo wrote a letter to a student explaining how Copernican theory did not contradict the Bible. The letter was made public and the Inquisition chaps pronounced Copernican theory heretical. Galileo was ordered not to “hold, teach, or defend in any manner” this theory. He obeyed the order until 1623 when his buddy, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, was selected as Pope Urban VIII. Urban allowed Galileo to pursue his work on condition it did not advocate Copernican theory.
In 1632, Galileo published the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a discussion among three people: one who supports Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, one who argues against it, and one who remains impartial. Although Galileo insisted the book was neutral, let’s just note that the character who argues in defence of Aristotle, and consequently the Church, is called “Simplicio” and is portrayed as quite the dullard. Galileo had overstepped the mark and incensed his papal buddy, who had granted him some latitude back in 1623.
Now elderly and infirm, he was summoned to appear before the Roman Inquisition. Though in fairness, if that’s the right word, Galileo was treated well during the proceedings. He was not dragged in chains from a fetid dungeon every day; he stayed in the home of a compassionate Tuscan ambassador. But the Church had to be the winner of this show trial and Team Inquisition had to devise a winning plan; they threatened Galileo with torture. Thoughts of being put to the rack or branded with hot irons had that instant volte-face affect.
Torture, or the threat of torture, has rarely elicited useful information. When Galileo ‘admitted’ under threat of torture that he was strangely ‘mistaken’ in his belief that the earth and all other known planets orbit the sun, it was a ludicrous scene; Galileo still didn’t believe the earth was the centre of the universe, neither did many of those cardinals and bishops who listened to his staged confession. In Nazi Germany, most physicists – even supporters of the regime – could not countenance rejecting relativity and quantum theory, but instead rejected the irrational balderdash of Lenard and Stark. Fake science did not prevail.
Big Hands, Bigger Crowds
But can you replace good science or the truth with fake science or alternative facts? The answer is you can’t. You can huff and puff and bluff when you are a member of the ‘party’ and have state endorsement, but that won’t make your science better or your fake news true; it will only make them ‘official’. When Press Secretary, Sean Spicer told the White House press corps that more people attended President Trump’s inauguration than President Obama’s, or, for that matter, any inauguration in the history of inaugurations – ever, Spicer did not believe it, neither did anybody in the audience. We can see how well ‘official’ is working today in Zimbabwe. We will find out, pretty soon, how ‘official’ works in the United States Trump administration. ‘Deutsche’ or German physics would only be entertained in a country that was inward looking, highly nationalistic and deluded by a superiority complex.
Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent his remaining years under house arrest. But you can’t supress good work once people know about it. His books were printed in France and Holland, and he continued to write. Over time, the Church would lift its bans on works supporting the theories of Copernicus, and drop its opposition to heliocentrism. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologised for the Church’s treatment of Galileo.
Lenard, Stark and their nationalistic science buddies did try to replace that darned complicated Jewish relativity and quantum theory with some good old Aryan physics. They wanted to replace all that nebulous, inaccessible, formulaic jiggery pokery with good, clean, simple, wholesome, understandable physics based on that uniquely German intuition. Helge Kragh, in Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century, adds romantic to the list.
‘Basically, the Aryan physicists were antimoderns and romanticists, who longed for a return to a physics based on experiments and simple, understandable theory in agreement with intuition.’
For them, it was all about visualisation and a personalised dialogue with nature where the answer would metaphorically fall on your head; something strangely that Aryan physicists could do and Jewish physicists could not do. I don’t know though, my eyes are shut so tight they hurt and yet I cannot conjure up an image of Lenard, Stark, Wordsworth, Blake, Beethoven, Schumann, and Turner at a Romantic mash-up.
The Spirit of Einstein’s Spirit
Advanced mathematical approaches – dark arts practiced by Jewish physicists, would, according to Lenard and Stark lead to tarnished science. And talk about age-old racist stereotyping; one of Lernard’s students, a buffoon by the name of Alfons Bühl, described the mystical sums as practiced by Jewish physicists thus:
‘This exceedingly mathematical treatment of physical problems had undoubtedly arisen from the Jewish spirit …. Just as he [the Jew] otherwise – as in business – always has only the numerical, the credit and debit calculation before his eyes, so it must be designated as a typical racial characteristic even in physics that he places mathematical formulation in the foreground.’
Back to Kragh then,
‘Lenard and his like believed that physics was truth-seeking, and that truth could be obtained only through experiments combined with mental images of reality.’
Remember, they held the view that there were different forms of physics depending on your race and nationality. These views fitted perfectly with the ideologies expressed in Hitler’s Mein Kamp, and Rosenberg’s Der Mythus des 20 Jahrhunderts, which firmly placed Aryans in the vanguard of humankind. Indeed, the most dangerous thing you could throw at Aryan physicists who disagreed with Deutsche Physik was an accusation of ‘thinking’ or ‘acting’ Jewish; a label like this could threaten you with the same persecution real Jews faced; not something you wanted when Heinrich Himmler was chief of police with Heydrich as his sadist sidekick. Supporters of Deutsche Physik could ramp up the fear for non-Jewish physicists who insisted on supporting Einstein’s theory of relativity by calling them ‘the spirit of Einstein’s spirit’. When it came to name calling in Nazi Germany, this was up there; this was blacklist central.
Lenard and Stark were control freaks; they wanted to control physics in Germany and this meant controlling all academic appointments in physics. By the end of 1939, six supporters of Deutsche Physik had been appointed professors at German universities. Laughably, a Nazi and old school anti-relativist with no knowledge of modern physics was appointed professor of theoretical physics at Munich. This would be like appointing a witch doctor to head up the neurosurgery department in a medical school, or a climate change denier as Head of an Environmental Protection Agency. Proponents of ‘Jewish’ physics; intellectual giants of the stature of Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck were no longer welcome in German universities, but the worm would slowly turn.
There followed a rush of memos, political manoeuvrings, lobbying and heated debate among all the players. It ended with seventy-five physicists signing a petition in defence of the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Lenard and Stark were side-lined – it didn’t help that Stark had overspent on a project that followed the trail of a crazy Teutonic myth that there was gold to be extracted from south German heaths.
Bad scientists and their supporters only threaten good science when they have official support, and as has always been the case, their time in the sun is transitory.