Monday, March 09, 2009


The following paragraphs come from a book I'm reading presently, The Great Equations by Robert P. Crease. Laughing at Ehrenhaft, I'm forced to say that I'm 71 and I can't even find a podium. So my mumbling and grumbling about religion usually occurs in the presence of my lovely wife. Ehrenhaft, fundamentalist religious nuts of all religions and me...

"It took place in September 1946 in New York City at one of the first postwar annual meetings of the American Physical Society. At one session, the presentation by the young Dutch theorist Abraham Pais, who was struggling to explain the strange behavior of a puzzling, recently discovered new particle, was interrupted by Felix Ehrenhaft, an elderly Viennese physicist. Ever since 1910, Ehrenhaft had been claiming to have evidence for the existence of 'subelectrons,' charges whose values were smaller than the electron's, and his efforts to advance his claims had long ago exhausted the patience of the physics community. Now approaching seventy, Ehrenhaft was still seeking an audience, and approached the podium demanding to be heard.

"A young physicist named Herbert Goldstein—who told me the story—was sitting next to his mentor and former colleague from the MIT Radiation Laboratory, Arnold Siegert.

" 'Pais's theory is far crazier than Ehrenhaft's,' Goldstein asked Siegert. 'Why do we call Pais a physicist and Ehrenhaft a nut?'

"Siegert thought a moment. 'Because,' he said firmly, 'Ehrenhaft believes his theory.'
The strength of Ehrenhaft's conviction, Siegert meant, had interfered with the normally playful attitude that scientists require, an ability to risk and respond in carrying forward their dissatisfaction. (Conviction, Nietzsche said, is a greater enemy of truth than lies.) What makes a crackpot is not simply our prejudices, nor necessarily the claim, but our recognition of the disruptive effects of the author's conviction. For conviction tends to wipe out not only the dissatisfaction but also the playfulness, the combination of which produces such a powerful driving force in science." —Robert P. Crease

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