22 August 2019
‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’ Max Plank.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing anyone who has a new idea is the sheer difficulty of getting anyone to change their mind. About anything. This difficulty is compounded if a committee, or any group of people, has to change their minds. Not only do they have to change their mind, they must make a public admission that they were wrong.
Many years ago, I was in contact with a geologist Thomas Gold. Yes, don’t worry, you have never heard of him. Neither had I. It was simply an honour that having read some of my ramblings he chose to reach out for a few on-line chats. Sadly, he is now dead.
He was a maverick. In the nineteen fifties he had been repeatedly thrown out of the American Geological Society for being a vigorous promoter of the tectonic plate hypothesis. Namely, that the Earth’s surface is make up of vast plates that glide about above the mantle. Not so much gliding as grinding very slowly.
Of course, this is now universally accepted as being true. Not so sixty years ago, when anyone mentioning tectonic plates was considered a dangerous fool, who understood nothing about geology, or science. Oh yes, indeed.
However, Thomas Gold did not stop with tectonic plates, he also promoted the abiotic theory of oil generation. I think he also came up with the idea of neutron stars as well. Anyway, getting back to abiotic oil generation, he did not believe that oil was created when trees – or other organic matter - died, rotted, went underground and was, gradually converted to oil.
He believed that oil was generated spontaneously within the Earth’s core. To quote:
‘Gold’s theory of oil formation, which he expounded in a book entitled The Deep Hot Biosphere, is that hydrogen and carbon, under high temperatures and pressures found in the mantle during the formation of the Earth, form hydrocarbon molecules which have gradually leaked up to the surface through cracks in rocks. The organic materials which are found in petroleum deposits are easily explained by the metabolism of bacteria which have been found in extreme environments similar to Earth’s mantle. These hyperthermophiles, or bacteria which thrive in extreme environments, have been found in hydrothermal vents, at the bottom of volcanoes, and in places where scientists formerly believed life was not possible. Gold argues that the mantle contains vast numbers of these bacteria.
The abiogenic origin of petroleum deposits would explain some phenomena that are not currently understood, such as why petroleum deposits almost always contain biologically inert helium. Based on his theory, Gold persuaded the Swedish State Power Board to drill for oil in a rock that had been fractured by an ancient meteorite. It was a good test of his theory because the rock was not sedimentary and would not contain remains of plant or marine life. The drilling was successful, although not enough oil was found to make the field commercially viable. The abiotic theory, if true, could affect estimates of how much oil remains in the Earth’s crust.’ 1
There you go. You have never heard of this before – ever. I think I can pretty much guarantee this. Neither had I. But I loved it. It was utterly and completely different to everything I had been told. Is it right, or is it wrong? No idea. I ain’t no geologist. Worth exploring as an idea though, surely.
What I do know, from speaking to Thomas is that almost all of his peers instantly rejected his ideas out of hand. Why? Because it didn’t fit with the knowledge they had been brought up with. Custom is king …
For many years it was taught that bacteria could not live in the human stomach. It was too hostile, too acidic. So, when it was proposed that a bacterium (H. Pylori), living in the stomach, could be an important cause of stomach ulcers, the idea was pretty much dismissed out of hand.
Warren and Marshall eventually proved that the scientific consensus on this matter was utter nonsense. This despite being attacked viciously from all sides. They eventually won the Nobel prize for their work where they were specifically praised for battling on in the face of implacable hostility. It is clear that had Warren not been a cussed swine, they could easily have given up, worn down by the opposition.
Had Max Plank not decided to publish some wild and whacky papers in his journal ‘Physics’, from a patent clerk, it is perfectly possible we may never have heard of a certain Albert Einstein.
When people ask me why do you think people cling onto the cholesterol hypothesis with such tenacity, is this vast conspiracy driven by the pharmaceutical industry? I expect most of them think I will say yes. I mean, obviously, there is a vast conspiracy going on to protect profits from cholesterol lowering.
However, the main reason why people cling to ideas is the natural human response – which is to reject new ideas out of hand.
“The mind likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science.” Wilfred Trotter
Ooh, I do like Wilfred Trotter. Here is another one of his:
‘The truly scientific mind is altogether unafraid of the new, and while having no mercy for ideas which have served their turn or shown their uselessness, it will not grudge to any unfamiliar conception its moment of full and friendly attention, hoping to expand rather than to minimize what small core of usefulness it may happen to contain.’
What has this to do with heart disease, you could ask? The answer is: almost everything.