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Mark Perakh's Web Site

More about "heresy" in science

By Mark Perakh

Posted April 15, 2004

When reading Andrea Bottaro's fine post where he tells telltale stories about non-orthodox ideas taking hold in mainstream biology, it reminded me some stories that took place in my field.

I am taking the liberty of telling here a story from my own past.

I guess the name of Lev Landau is known to many readers of this site. He was a very prominent theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate and a founder and a long-time leader of a group of outstanding theoretical physicists in Russia. His authority among physicists in the USSR was immense and undisputed. To argue against Dau (as he usually was referred to) one could only at one's peril. Every physicist viewed it an honor to be allowed to give a presentation at Landau's famous weekly seminar. If Landau approved the presentation it would immensely enhance the prestige of the presenter. On the other hand, if Landau disliked the thesis he would make mincemeat of the offender with a few very caustic and witty remarks.  After being thus disparaged, the hapless offender had nowhere to appeal. 

There was in the USSR a professor of physics by the name of Pines who authored an authoritative book on X-rays technique. In the fifties he submitted to Landau a paper which he wished to present at Landau's seminar. This paper was a theoretical treatise about Poisson coefficient. Poisson coefficient is the ratio between the transverse and longitudinal strains of a solid body. It had been a commonly accepted view that Poisson coefficient may have only positive values up to k=1/2. Positive value of k means that when a body is stretched along some axis, it shrinks in the transverse direction. (For example, this is stated this way in the famous Feynman's Lectures on Physics). In fact, a thermodynamic analysis (which I performed in '69) shows that no law of physics forbids a negative value of k, so that k may in principle have values between -1 and +1/2.

Negative k means that a body, while being stretched along some axis, would simultaneously expand along the transverse direction.  Such a behavior was, though, never observed, and to the best of my knowledge, the thermodynamic analysis I mentioned was never conducted before, so the common notion had been that k is always positive and not exceeding 1/2. 

I have not read Pines's article so I don't know what his arguments were, except for the general idea – he suggested some theoretical consideration showing that solid bodies with a negative Poisson coefficient may exist. I could not read Pines's article for a simple reason – Landau derided Pines, and Pines's article was never published and was nowhere to be found. Some of my colleagues who happened to witness the story, told that, having looked over Pines's article, Landau said, "You know, Pines, if you swap i and e in your name you get the only body in the world that expands sideways when stretching." End of Pines's prestige and of his theory.

Now jump to 1969. I had at that time a doctoral student Vitaly Balagurov. He was one of only four of my doctoral students (out of the total of 26) who failed to get the doctoral degree. (In 1970 Balagurov had to abandon his research because of family circumstances). In '69 he was conducting experiments with films of magnetic alloys deposited in strong magnetic fields.

Balagurov was frustrated by the stubborn instability of the data he got while measuring stress in these films – which was the task I gave him. For a while I was busy with some other research and kept postponing a review of his data. Finally I turned to his raw data and, to my amazement, realized that the alleged instability was caused by what seemed to be a bizarre effect – when the films were stretched along one of the axes, they seemed to expand in the transverse direction. 

It was hard to believe, so I set out to check the data and to find the glitch in measurements which surely must have been somewhere. Together with Balagurov, we conducted hundreds of measurements, modifying the set-ups, the conditions etc, and, after a long-long series of experiments (as far as I recall, it took a whole year) I came to the conclusion that it was a real effect – these films had a negative Poisson ratio!

Of course everybody knew it was impossible – the great Landau himself said so a few years earlier and destroyed the poor Pines who dared to suggest otherwise. What could I do – to openly go against Landau and common knowledge?  That was exactly what I did. I wrote an article (with Balagurov as a co-author) where not only described the experimental results but also dared to offer a model suggesting a mechanism for the observed bizarre phenomenon, and sent it to the  prestigious journal of the Academy of Sciences – Fizika Tverdogo Tela (Physics of Solids).

The submissions to this journal always are reviewed by at least two anonymous referees. It usually takes some time. What happened, neither Landau's prestige nor the "common knowledge" played a role – our article was published, and unusually soon - in less than two months.  The "orthodox" scientific "establishment" was obviously more interested in the unusual results than in preserving prestige, orthodox views, or using the alleged mechanism of peer-review to kill unwanted data – all those malaises of science attributed to it by the ID crowd.

In physics and biology alike – what counts is evidence, and that is what the ID champions have in a very short supply.