Cautious debate

I can’t resist sharing with my readers the salutary example provided by one astronomer’s robust criticism of another –

Luyten astronomer

W.J. Luyten was no amateur astronomer; many of his theoretical and practical observations are still noted in the literature.  His letter follows the pattern which I think some Voynicheros will find not unfamiliar – characteristic of what happens when one experienced person becomes a little more involved with their self-importance than with the subject in hand, to the point that they may begin to feel it a form of effrontery that anyone should hold an opinion differing from their own.  When one ceases to feel a keen and active interest in new ideas and new approaches to old topics, intellectual advances tend to become ever fewer.

Luyten’s letter of 1940, published in the The Observatory, begins with the usual expressions of incredulity and astonishment that attention should be paid to opinions of which he disapproves.  The Observatory had recently published two papers, each by a person whose opinions Luyten had previously subjected to his scrutiny and dismissed.  The journal’s having then published their papers affronted him – particularly, it seems, because his own criticisms had not been given sufficiently respectful attention.

He says:

To say that such a statement [by Hoyle] would sum up the substance of all criticisms is so manifestly unfair that one is forced to conclude that Mr. Hoyle has not read, or is not interested in criticisms which Hill and myself, and later I alone, have advanced.

Luyten later alludes to an apparent (if indirect) insinuation by Hoyle that Luyten – with or without Hill –  has a ‘medieval’ mindset. Luyten returns the insult in kind:

… evidently the proponents of this catastrophic theory are religious fundamentalists at heart, who are unalterably opposed to the plurality of worlds, and hence also to any theory that does not imply the near-uniqueness of our solar system: in those circumstances a high improbability becomes an asset to the theory and one might even speak of a return to the credio quia absurdum.

Immediately following which, Luyten’s indignation about emotional arguments’ being introduced into a scientific discussion seems a little hollow. He then moves on to disparage Lyttleton for having failed to attend to his maths and … then the [yawn] hackneyed accusation of “irrelevance”:

Lyttleton has made one attempt at calculating what happens when the presumed planetary filament condenses, but his calculations are again irrelevant..

Luyten’s letter runs for three pages, ending with a crescendo of wonderful, rolling prose:

When a theory such as Lyttleton’s in its present form proves to be astrophysically objectionable, as well as dynamically untenable, and is, in addition, superlatively improbable, then I believe we are justified in concluding that it has been removed from the realm of scientific discussion. I shall therefore consider the case as closed until such time as really new arguments, scientifically tenable, may be advanced.


In the longer perspective ..

W.J. Luyten

Luyten had a knack for finding fault with the researches of others … it seemed as though he correlated diplomacy with hypocrisy, which he could not tolerate. I  sometimes jested that you could not be a good astronomer unless you were on Luyten’s blacklist, so many astronomers of his time came under his criticism; some he even described as liars.

~ extracted from the obituary/biography by D. Hoffleit, ‘Self-Styled Curmudgeon, W.J. Luyten 1899-1994’, The Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, vol. 24, no. 1, p. 43-49.

R.A. Lyttleton

Ray (as he was known to all and sundry) Lyttleton was an important figure in British theoretical astronomy. By nature heterodox, his work was yet underpinned by his remarkable command of that most traditional branch of his subject, dynamical astronomy. His fluency in the relevant fields of mathematics served well to give substance to his imaginative outlook as regards the physical aspects of astronomical and geophysical situations. He had an intense dislike of sloppiness, wherever he thought he found any.

If the general herd of his colleagues appeared to him to follow a trend without having properly disproved the alternative, he could be counted on to pursue it with vigour and persistence.

~ from the obit/biography written by Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle for the Royal Society, 1997.

Fred Hoyle

In 1957, Hoyle and Fowler showed that all the elements from which our world is made – from carbon atoms to uranium atoms – had been cooked inside stars eons ago from a basic fuel of hydrogen. These heavy elements were then blasted into space in great stellar explosions called supernovae, where they later congealed into planets, mountains – and humans. We are stardust, in other words.

“There is no doubt that Fowler and Hoyle’s 1957 paper is of Nobel quality and standing,” says Hoyle’s biographer, Simon Mitton, a Cambridge astronomer. “And in terms of understanding the chemical elements, Hoyle made the greater contribution when you compare it with Fowler’s. The latter was a nuclear physicist who provided basic data. Hoyle provided the insights.”  .. [Hoyle] could be cantankerous and opinionated and had offended a large number of influential colleagues unused to his Yorkshire bluntness. He had called some of them liars and cheats in public, while his beliefs, in later life, verged on the lunatic. .. But were they grounds for refusing Hoyle a Nobel prize?”

– from an article by Robin McKie, The Guardian, October 3rd., 2010.

Hoyle and Lyttelton

Hoyle and Lyttleton

“All the world is mad, save thee and me, and even thou art a little strange” –  modern colloquial rendering of Robert Owen’s famous words to William Allen when withdrawing from a venture in common.


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