David Park, Professor Emeritus of the Physics Department and critically acclaimed author in quantum mechanics and popular science, opened this spring’s “Necessity of Failure” lecture series on February 21 with a tour through the darker annals of scientific history. Park’s talk, entitled “A Harder Thing Than Triumph: From the collapse of an Egyptian pyramid to the collapse of a universe, scientists stumble and learn,” covered a spectrum of the awkward and often overlooked failures that have accompanied achievements in physics in ancient and modern times.
In her opening remarks, Professor Sabrina Hamilton of the Theater department acknowledged the unusual theme of the lecture series, explaining that failure is a phenomenon that cuts across disciplines and engages the diverse members of the Williams community. “Failure is frightening,” Hamilton noted, “and whatever is frightening is usually interesting and worthy of investigation.”
Professor Park started with a profile of several Egyptian pyramids, describing some of the more egregious errors that occurred in the process of their construction. With color slides of the sandy monuments behind him, Park showed how a miscalculation in the angles of the walls of the first pyramid caused its entire outer shell of limestone to slide off of the foundation in “a roaring Niagra of stone.”
Undaunted by disaster, the Egyptian architects erected new pyramids 50 km down the Nile that were free of the original glitch, but plagued with other technical problems that left each apex 100 feet shorter than planned, giving the whole structure a dilapidated appearance. In Park’s words, the message from the evolving pyramids is fairly obvious: the builders of the final pyramid at Kufu were only able to achieve the stability and correct dimensions after learning from their earlier errors.
From Egypt, Professor Park jumped forward two thousand years to England, and described how Sir Isaac Newton, the seemingly unassailable father of modern physics, was less than perfect in his day. While Newton had miraculously described three laws of dynamics that apply to all forms of matter, he failed to impress the scientific community of continental Europe.
The problem was that the title of Newton’s paper, “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” seemed contradictory to the continentals. In the 17th century, mathematics was used to calculate the position of planets in order to cast horoscopes, while philosophy tried to answer questions such as, what are planets and why do they move? Newton provided a brilliant description of how objects move, but he failed to provide any explanation for why they moved.
In one of many comical moments of the evening, Professor Park noted that Newton’s contemporaries also had a difficult time discussing his work with gravity, because in those days any talk of “attraction” was inevitably linked to sexual attraction. “And so,” Park noted, “any talk of Newton’s force was apt to end up in winks and nods and little jokes.”
Newton’s failure to explain how gravity works irked the next theoretical giant on Professor Park’s Bill of Fare, Albert Einstein. Newton was aware of a gnawing problem with gravity: if everything is attracted to everything else, the entire universe should collapse in on itself. Newton’s only explanation was that God occasionally intervenes to keep this from happening.
In another unexpected comical moment, Professor Park shifted spontaneously into an exaggerated German accent and quoted Leibnitz’s (a German contemporary of Newton’s) vehement disagreement with Newton’s Deus ex Machina. Einstein wasn’t satisfied with the divine intervention theory either, but believed that the universe has always been one size, and that some force pushes out from all matter to counterbalance the pull of gravity. Critics attacked this idea, too, and Einstein eventually admitted that it was his greatest blunder. Yet, while both Newton and Einstein suffered minor defeats to gravity, their “failures” to explain the cosmos only spurred on further questions and research, culminating in last year’s cosmological discovery that the universe may be expanding indefinitely, which may reconcile Einstein’s greatest blunder.
Leaving Albert and Isaac behind, Professor Park then told the sadder story of cold fusion. In a 1989 press conference at the University of Utah, Professors Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman announced that with the power from a car battery and the materials from a laboratory stock room, they had generated small amounts of clean, safe power in the form of a nuclear reaction sustained within a tiny glass jar.
The press was giddy with the revolutionary implications of unlimited sources of power without pollution. The scientific community, however, was skeptical, and several labs were unable to confirm the results of the amazingly simple experiment. Even though cold fusion was disintegrating before their eyes, Pons and Fleischman held onto their results with the tenacity of bulldogs.
According to Park, failure is often accompanied by a human condition that he called True Believer Syndrome, where people “work a proposition into their system of beliefs so tightly, that it cannot be dislodged without destroying the whole system.” Pons and Fleischman had become true believers in cold fusion and couldn’t admit to their failure.
Unwilling to end on such a dreary note, Professor Park then told the uplifting story of Louis Alvarez’s ingenious attempt to X-ray an Egyptian pyramid in order to determine whether there was a burial tomb hidden in its center. Among other things, Alvarez won a Nobel Prize for discovering several elementary particles and, with the help of his son, proposed that dinosaurs may have gone extinct due to drastic climatic changes resulting from an asteroid crashing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Pointing to the pyramid in question, Park said, “It’s too big to bring into a dentist’s office or to the hospital, but nature supplies its own version of X-rays right there in the desert.” Muons are tiny particles that streak down from the upper atmosphere and penetrate solid objects on the Earth’s surface to a depth of about 100 feet. As you read this, there are about five muons passing through every square inch of your body per minute.
If the pyramid was in fact hollow, Alvarez expected to measure more muons raining down underneath the center of the pyramid than to either side. Setting up his bulky cosmic ray telescope in the previously discovered tomb chamber directly underneath the pyramid, Alvarez collected data that indicated that there was in fact an undiscovered tomb at the center of the pyramid.
It took the team of scientist two days to discover that there was a programming error in their equipment; there was not really any mystery chamber after all. When asked if he was bitter that it took the team two days to discover the errorâ€”enough time for the elation of success to have sunk inâ€”Alvarez answered, “Without that, I would have missed the two most exciting days of my life.”
Like Alvarez, Professor Park has occasionally discovered mistakes that have shattered his own precious results. “Besides the real phenomena you uncover in research,” Park explained, “you find many other apparent phenomena that don’t survive careful examination.
“The disappointment of learning that a discovery is false hardly subtracts at all from the elation that you feel while you believe it is real. I’ve experienced this powerful and unrealistic relation many times.”
With these words, Park concluded the lecture on a warm note that eclipsed any of the humorous or embarrassing scientific mistakes that were outlined earlier. The collapsing pyramids and experimental setbacks have given momentum to the “Necessity of Failure” lecture series, contributing a candid view of the stumbling that accompanies progress in science.