Scientific discoveries can be divided, very broadly speaking, into four categories: major serendipitous discoveries, major discoveries that happen within a well known theoretical framework, major discoveries achieved by following unconventional ideas and minor incremental discoveries that most commonly are made when following an established agenda. The latter kind of discoveries certainly embrace the largest number of scientific papers published every day. Obviously, they should not be considered unimportant works as they constitute the building blocks that allow new ideas to sprout and grow. Serendipitous discoveries instead are perhaps what makes science a funny and challenging intellectual activity; quoting Heraclitus: ”If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out, and difficult”.
Major discoveries that happen within a know theoretical framework are instead those that today deserve the highest status among committees that allocate funds (and, since I am an astronomer, also observing time at major observatories) and are also popular in certain academic environments. There is nothing wrong with this except that science made only by following a fixed agenda is very often at odds with research made following unconventional ideas. I second very much the view of prof. Avi Loeb (Institute for Theory and Computation, Harvard University) that recently wrote two papers on this topic and suggests that new ideas do indeed form when innovative and creative thinking are let free (paper 1; paper 2).
It is true of course that mainstream science has to defend itself from crackpot theories and fringe science, especially in these times of poor funding and financial resources. But this by no means should imply that alternative (and perhaps even eccentric) theories and ideas should be disregarded. Not only history has taught us that very often a new revolutionary idea has been accepted after fierce opposition, but we also know that Nature is much more imaginative than the human brain. So what can appear wacky and bizarre to the average scientist might instead be the breach to a new fundamental description of the World. I will mention just a few names of physicists (some still alive) whose ideas were considered bizarre if not completely bogus and that were either opposed or even ridiculed by their peers. Needless to say, their ideas turned out to be just plain right: G. Zweig (quark theory), G. Ohm (Ohm’s law), P. Higgs (Higg’s boson; his first paper was rejected), R. Goddard (space flight), H. Alfven (galactic plasma dynamics), F. Zwicky (dark matter), K. Gauss and N. Lobachevsky (non-euclidean geometry), C. Doppler (Doppler effect, opposed because his theory contradicted the well established theory of the Luminiferous aether), L. Boltzmann (entropy), S. Chandrasekhar (ridiculed by A. S. Eddington because of the Chandrasekhar limit); G. Galiei (shall I really explain this?).
Among the physicists that I have listed above, there have been at least 100 times more scientists with bizarre ideas that led nowhere and that explored scientific paths with dead-ends. But given the breakthrough made when using creative thinking, isn’t all this background noise just worth it? Even more, shouldn’t we encourage and push the pursuit of creative thinking given that a few gems will certainly be found among those waste-ideas? Aren’t bizarre ideas just absolutely necessary for a better science?
Alessandro Patruno is a researcher at the Leiden University working in the field of compact objects (neutron stars, black holes and white dwarfs) and high energy astrophysics. In his blog Astrosplash Alessandro discusses news in his research field and posts updates on his work.