I’m writing a bit for the book-in-progress about neutrinos– prompted by a forthcoming book by Ray Jaywardhana that I was sent for review– and in looking for material, I ran across a great quote from Arthur Stanley Eddington, the British astronomer and science popularizer best known for his eclipse observations that confirmed the bending of light by gravity. Eddington was no fan of neutrinos, but in a set of lectures about philosophy of science, later published as a book, he wrote that he wouldn’t bet against them:
My old-fashioned kind of disbelief in neutrinos is scarcely enough. Dare I say that experimental physicists will not have sufficient ingenuity to make neutrinos? Whatever I may think, I am not going to be lured into a wager against the skill of experimenters under the impression that it is a wager against the truth of a theory.
As an experimentalist, I initially found that kind of flattering. Of course, as a writer and academic, I feel an obligation to get the sources right before I go quoting things in a book. and “make” there is kind of an odd word. So I did a bit of Googling and found a piece of the source online. With a bit more context, the quote becomes a little more ambivalent:
I am not much impressed by the neutrino theory. In an ordinary way I might say that I do not believe in neutrinos . But I have to reflect that a physicist may be an artist, and you never know where you are with artists. My old-fashioned kind of disbelief in neutrinos is scarcely enough. Dare I say that experimental physicists will not have sufficient ingenuity to make neutrinos? Whatever I may think, I am not going to be lured into a wager against the skill of experimenters under the impression that it is a wager against the truth of a theory. If they succeed in making neutrinos, perhaps even in developing industrial applications of them, I suppose I shall have to believe – though I may feel that they have not been playing quite fair.
The question is raised whether the experimenter really provides such an effective control on the imagination of the theorist as is usually supposed. Certainly he is an incorruptible watch-dog who will not allow anything to pass which is not observationally true. But there are two ways of doing that – as Procrustes realized. One is to expose the falsity of an assertion. The other is to alter things a bit so as to make the assertion true. And it is admitted that our experiments do alter things.
The extra sentences made me wonder again about what he was really saying. This almost sounds like he’s accusing experimentalists of being willing to resort to fraud– of ginning up something that would look and act close to what a neutrino is supposed to be, so as to deceive more righteous skeptics. That made me much less charitably inclined toward Eddington’s quote.
That is, however, a pretty bold accusation to make. But, of course, the fragment from Google Books left out the bits to either side of that, so I couldn’t make out what he was really up to. Which is maddening, and seemed to demand yet another trip to the library stacks.
Happily, a little more time with Google turned up the full text (as a Word document, of all things, that I’ve been cutting and pasting the above out of). And adding yet more context makes the whole thing less awful– the “artist” reference is a callback to an earlier analogy about the distinction between “finding” and “creating” reality, most clearly in this paragraph from a bit earlier:
Substance (if it had been possible to retain it as a physical conception) might have offered some resistance to the observer’s interference; but form plays into his hands. Suppose an artist puts forward the fantastic theory that the form of a human head exists in a rough-shaped block of marble. All our rational instinct is roused against such an anthropomorphic speculation. It is inconceivable that Nature should have placed such a form inside the block. But the artist proceeds to verify his theory experimentally – with quite rudimentary apparatus too. Merely using a chisel to separate the form for our inspection, he triumphantly proves his theory. Was it in this way that Rutherford rendered concrete the nucleus which his scientific imagination had created?
Seen in that light, the original bit is… well, somewhere between the first two extremes. It’s not quite as complimentary to experimentalists as I originally thought, but not quite as insulting as I thought on the second reading. I’m not hugely enamored of the general line of argument– it strikes me, frankly, as the sort of thing that sounds really deep at first but ends up not meaning much of anything, and at worst shades toward providing aid and comfort to New Age piffle about creating the universe via consciousness collapsing quantum fields and that sort of thing. But at least it doesn’t completely ruin the first quote for use as a transition to talking about Reines and Cowan and the direct detection of neutrinos (warning: PDF).
I suppose I should just be grateful that it didn’t turn out to be entirely apocryphal, as far too many really good lines do. I’ve already written too many “there’s little to no evidence that ____ actually said this, but it’s a great line…” asides.