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Episode 142 - Who's on First? Origin of Ideas in Science

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Recap: From an ego standpoint, it's nice to get credit if you're the first to do something or figure something out. But from a scientific standpoint, it's also important to remember what has been known so we don't waste resources rediscovering something. And, from a pseudoscientific standpoint, many people like to take credit for imaginary claims about discovering something before scientists. On this episode, I explore all of these.

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Episode Summary

Claim: There really is no “claim” per se in this episode, rather I came up with the idea after seeing the inevitable response by pseudoscientists - and even political commentators, surprisingly - to the recent announcement that data from a NASA spacecraft had shown that there was active liquid water on Mars, albeit very salty and in tiny bits that quickly evaporate away. So what I want to talk about in this brief episode is the difficulty with tracking down who is really the first person or group of people to discover something or even to propose an idea in science.


As a simple example, let’s take calculus. Most people who think they know who invented the concepts of calculus probably think that Isaac Newton is that person. He is certainly credited in most cases because he was the first to really use it in something most of us think of as important, which is much of the classical physics which is is rightly credited with inventing.

But, you may have heard that there is a controversy over this, and that Gottfried Leibniz is the person who should truly get the credit with making high school math students’ heads hurt. The controversy over who did it first even has its own Wikipedia entry called the “Leibniz-Newton calculus controversy."

What it boils down to is who published first. Leibniz started to publish some of his work on calculus in 1674 and in 1684 published his first paper where he used some of the basic principles. And, it was used by L’Hôpital in 1696.

But, Isaac Newton, based on papers that were only later published, had begun to work on the concepts of calculus in 1666, 8 years before Leibniz published. And, even though Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687 that showed the RESULTS of calculus, he never published how he did it until 1693 in part and 1704 in full, two decades after Leibniz.

My point in this bit of history is to explain that the controversy over who did what first is not limited to modern science, and it’s not something that only skeptics quibble over when they want to take a shot at a pseudoscientist taking credit for an idea, as I’ll discuss in a bit.

Scientists Discovering the Same Thing for the First Time

One of the reasons why understanding this is important for science outreach is that when we keep making incremental discoveries towards an eventual goal, or when we forget what was found before, or when we exaggerate a previous finding and then really find it, it makes us look stupid. Related to the water on Mars, the running joke around many real geophysicists is, “Oh joy, look, we discovered water for the first time on Mars, again!”

But let’s take a look at a more mundane example, first. In 2013, there was a NASA press release that was titled, “NASA, ESA Telescopes Find Evidence for Asteroid Belt Around Vega.” The first sentence was: “Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega.” If you read further, it’s all about implications, comparing it with other recent discoveries, and what questions future studies hope to answer.

It all seems as though this is a very new and interesting finding, and as a press release (and from NASA, no less), it was picked up by many news outlets, and I’m not trying to minimize those scientists’ work.

But, turn the clock back 30 years. In June 1984, in the journal Science – one of the preeminent journals in the world – there was a paper published by Paul R. Weissman with the title, “The Vega Particulate Shell: Comets or Asteroids?”

If you read the abstract, it states: “The [IRAS] science team has discovered a shell of particulate material around the star Vega. … The Vega shell is probably a ring of cometary bodies … . … A possible hot inner shell around Vega may be an asteroid-like belt of material a few astronomical units [the distance between Earth and the Sun] from the star.”

We didn’t have the internet back then, but based on a Google News archive, at least one newspaper, the Boston Globe, mentioned it in October 1984.

It is true that these are not exactly the same thing. It’s true that the new data are much better 30 years later. But the basic idea is the same: We knew 30 years ago that Vega had a debris disk around it of at least cometary and maybe asteroidal material as well.

Ergo, the press release title is misleading. And, anyone who does a news search who’s looking for when particular things may have been discovered – or at least probably discovered – in science will be mislead … in this case, by 30 years. So if I were an alleged alien contactee and I claimed in 2010 that aliens told me there was a disk of debris around Vega, I could have easily gotten that from the 1984 paper. But then, when this press release comes out in 2013, I could through my media representatives show that I knew it and was saying it before this work in 2013, therefore my alien contact was real. I’d be wrong, but more on that later.

Water on Mars

So let’s get to the topic du jour, water on Mars. We have known since the first Mariner photos were returned from Mars in the 1960s that it had water-carved-like landforms. We also knew since we had telescopes pointed at Mars that could resolve it that Mars had white polar caps.

From Viking images in the 1970s, we knew that Mars had valley networks that looked very much like sapping valleys we have on Earth, like the Canyon Lands in Utah. We also saw what looked like sandbars on the downstream side of craters, making them look like tadpoles except to those who don’t believe in pareidolia. Since we’ve had spectrometers in orbit, we knew that the polar caps were made partly of water-ice, and partly of carbon dioxide ice, or more commonly known as “dry ice.”

Every lander has found more evidence of a wet past. The Phoenix lander in the late 2000s dug down to and exposed ice just a little below the surface at a high northern latitude, and the Gamma Ray Spectrometer in orbit a decade ago returned data made into maps that showed near-surface ice down nearly as close to the equator as 45° latitude.

In 2000, high-resolution cameras in orbit returned images of slope streaks on crater walls, features that are up to 200 meters across and occur throughout the martian year, lasting years to decades before they fade away. Hope was high that these were made by water, perhaps leaking out from an aquifer and running down the side of the crater before the water rapidly evaporated in the low pressures of the atmosphere.

When we got better cameras in orbit, specifically the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, capable of taking images only 25 cm/px, we found a different type of feature running down the sides of crater walls called “recurring slope lineae.” Note that we try to name things in a way that does not imply an origin.

Anyway, we found these and they were first reported in a Science paper by Alfred McEwen in 2011. These are VERY different from slope streaks, and in fact there is a large table in the McEwen et al. 2011 paper that explains the differences. One is that these are only 5 meters wide instead of 200. Another is they only last a few months, and they only form when Mars is close to the sun, for about 1/3 of its orbit. They are associated with rocks while slope streaks aren’t. They have a high thermal inertia while slope streaks don’t, where thermal inertia is the resistance to change in temperature (like a big rock has a high thermal inertia while sand has a low thermal inertia). They only occur on dark material and are up to 40% darker than the material on which they form, while slope streaks only occur on bright material and are only 10% darker than the material on which they form.

So again, recurring slope lineae (RSL) are very different from slope streaks.

And, for the last several years, more and more people became convinced that they could only be formed by water. And the latest news was that we had spectral information from the CRISM instrument in orbit that showed water on the RSLs. That was the big announcement, so we had finally for the first time discovered water actually in liquid form on the surface of Mars.

Very cool.

But, several people tried to claim that they actually discovered this first. One of them was Mike Bara who wrote, “NASA is trying to steal my work and Richard C. Hoagland’s and Effrain Palermo from 15 years ago. Don’t let them do it.”

On Jimmy Church’s radio program, “Fade to Black,” Mike said, “Quite honestly, I was I think the first person in the world that said that's what it was, and this is the reasons why, and basically it was really gratifying on the one hand to read these articles on and stuff basically confirming everything that I published along with my co-workers.. you know, 15 years ago. … The alternative researchers, the people on the outside, have been right all along. Tonight we should stick a feather in our cap and say "We won this one. Because we've turned out to be right and all of the NASA supporters really have turned out to be wrong." Because NASA's finally come around to the truth doesn't mean they were ever right about this -- they've been wrong all along.”

There’s more to that transcript, and I’ve linked to Expat’s blog, Dork Mission, in the shownotes if you’d like to read it.

In addition, Richard Hoagland dedicated a night of his radio program to also saying that he was the one who first discovered water on Mars.

And then you had Rush Limbaugh, who I think has the largest radio audience in the world, said that water on Mars was all part of some “technique to advance the leftist agenda” and he was going to “assume it would be something to do with global warming.” Now that’s a bit gratuitous because it doesn’t have much to do with who did something first, but I had to slip it in there.

But, now you have it, context for how we have progressed from knowing nothing about the surface of Mars to evidence of past water to evidence of current ice to finally evidence that water does flow in some place on Mars today, during certain months of its year. And NASA did it first with their data.

Not the pseudoscientists with their suppositions. I got into a bit of a debate about this on the Facebook page for the podcast with the third person Mike Bara mentioned in his Facebook post, Efrain Palermo. Efrain maintains that he really did figure it out first, despite my pointing out that he was again talking about slope streaks which are very different from RSLs. He seemed to refuse to accept that they were different things.

Unfortunately, the evidence for water on Mars in some form has been so abundant for so long, that the reason why the pseudoscientists are wrong in this case is subtle, getting down to the differences between slope streaks and RSLs, and getting down to WHO said WHAT first.

Because even IF it were slope streaks that they were talking about instead of RSLs, real scientists working with NASA data were still the first to come up with the idea from slope streaks. On June 22, 2000, they announced that they saw gullies in craters — also different from slope streaks — which they thought might form from liquid, flowing water on Mars. That was June 2000, which is a year before anything written by Hoagland, Bara, or Palermo.

Claimed Evidence for Alien Contact

But finding that information wasn’t straight forward, and it was Expat who sent me a link to a article linked in the shownotes that discusses the history of water-on-Mars announcements by NASA.

And this gets to the final part I wanted to mention in this discussion, which gets back to the alien contactee example I mentioned before and even the Calculus example I opened the episode with: Figuring out who did something first, or who said something first, or even more difficult— who even THOUGHT of something first, is very, very hard.

And because it’s hard, pseudoscientists thrive on taking advantage of it. I did a very extensive episode, #90, looking into the claims made by people talking about the Billy Meier contactee case where many of his followers claim that because Meier wrote about something at some point in time, and an announcement about its discovery was allegedly made after that time, that it could not possibly have been known to anyone but Meier before that announcement and therefore Meier’s contacts with aliens are real.

In that episode, I looked meticulously at several of those claims relating to information about Jupiter and Saturn, and I showed that that was not the case, that the ideas Meier wrote about had been known, discussed, and in many cases I pointed to the actual publications, before Meier wrote about them.

Meier’s fans came back pretty much as I knew they would by claiming two things. One was moving the goalpost, claiming that now I had to show not just that the information was known to some people before Meier published it, but that Meier had to have been able to access that information and show how, from conventional sources. The other method was to nitpick with exact phrasings and terminology to basically argue that I was talking about a slightly different idea than Meier, or that Meier was talking about something slightly more nuanced that wouldn’t be discovered until years later.

I countered the former by pointing out that the claim was Meier could not possibly have known by any source other than aliens, and I proved that was wrong. As for the exact terminology or idea, who knows what he’s talking about in poetic German from decades ago as translated now into English by fans with a marked desire to make him look correct?

Wrap Up

But this all gets back to the idea of figuring out who thought of something first. It’s really hard, and when you go by something like a press release, you are automatically putting yourself at two disadvantages: One is that a press release by its nature is going to exaggerate, sensationalize, and leave out everything that was done before so as to make the latest stuff look as good as possible. But second, the press release for something comes months if not years later, after something is determined. Same with the published paper or conference abstract.

And, that may not be the first time. It is entirely possible, just like the “asteroid belt around Vega” example, that something very similar was done decades earlier but you would never know it when the latest work is getting all the attention.

But besides applications to pseudoscience, because I really don’t care that much if Mike Bara and his little fan club of True Believers think he discovered something before NASA did, in the broader field of science, there are really two problems to forgetting who did something first.

One is credit. It might sound like an egotistical reason, but when you did something first, and you don’t get credit when someone later does for that discovery, it’s not good. Hopefully I don’t have to explain why.

The other reason is that we can’t progress if we’re consistently repeating something because we forgot that we figured it out before.

The other reason is that we can’t progress if we’re consistently repeating something because we forgot that we figured it out before.

The other reason is that we can’t progress if we’re consistently repeating something because we forgot that we figured it out before.

Hopefully that audio loop was a nice if slightly annoying aural example of what I’m talking about. I recently faced this in a workshop that I organized for 50 scientists in May of this year about crater studies. We had people at the workshop who pretty much founded the field of study over 50 years ago, and we had people who were still graduate students, all coming together to discuss some of the outstanding issues that we should be focusing on in the coming years.

One of the many take-home messages was that institutional memory was gone. We were spending time and resources identifying problems that they had identified decades ago, but they had never written down, and the next generation forgot until we re-discovered them now. And that’s a problem, not only because it wastes time, resources, energy, and taxpayer money, but it means that we have trouble progressing in science. That’s why I’ll be the guest editor of a special issue of a scientific journal that will have a lot of review articles based on what was discussed at the meeting to hopefully preserve some of that institutional knowledge.

And I suppose that’s the point of this episode: It’s important to remember where we’ve been, who discovered what, and why, so that we can continue to progress in our knowledge of the universe.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 3. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Robert Peters   Chippewa Falls, WI

3:10am on Tuesday, November 24th, 2015 

Another great show. After 40 years of listening to Pink Floyd I was not able to discern any difference in the frequencies.

Paul   Denver

3:30pm on Saturday, October 17th, 2015 

I was right. No chance. If I were forced to guess, I'd say the second was 440 and the third 432, I couldn't say on the first.
If I were working 90 hours a week, I wouldn't even be listening to podcasts, much less producing them. Thank you for all your work.

Paul   Denver

2:54pm on Saturday, October 17th, 2015 

I commented on the 440 conspiracy, and I can tell you now before listening that I have almost no chance of getting it correct this time save for pure chance. I would never claim to have absolute pitch, which is what you're testing now. Having the two back to back is almost certainly what made it possible for me by making it relative.

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