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Potholes in the Road of Progress

By Phil Factor,

This week's editorial is a guest post from Phil Factor.

There is always a chance that you, in your work as a technologist, will discover something new. If it turns out to be wonderful and useful, you may be tempted to sit back with a glow of satisfaction and wait for the acclaim. In fact, you’re just at the start of a long battle for your discovery to be recognised. It isn’t just that breakthroughs are frequently ignored, but once you get over that problem, that they are sometimes met with active hostility.

Why would anyone be hostile to a scientific or technical advance? For every Einstein or Darwin, there are equal and opposite fools, eminent in their branch of science, who do their level best to delay advances. I find some of these people fascinating.

The absurd Professor Dionysius Lardner (1793 –1859) decided that the great railway engineer Brunel was incompetent, and temporarily managed to convince scientists that the voyage directly from New York to Liverpool by steam liner would be impossible. His final ignominy was in saying at an inquest that a fatal boiler explosion happened because the affected engine was struck by lightning.

Almost a decade after Joseph Lister discovered that surgery failed not through the ‘miasma’ but through unsterile surgical implements, many eminent surgeons such as Samuel Gross, distinguished professor of surgery at Jefferson University Medical College in Philadelphia, continued to wear street clothes, without masks and gloves, and using unsterile surgical equipment.

We somehow get a sneaking admiration for someone like Sir George Biddell Airy (1801 – 1892), Astronomer Royal from 1835 to 1881, who put back the science of chronology and computing several decades by poisoning the British government against the work of Babbage and ‘Longitude’ Harrison. He even managed to bury Thomas Fowler’s discovery of the unique properties of the balanced ternary system for mechanical calculators. His most famous mistake was to contribute to the Tay Bridge disaster by giving entirely incorrect advice to the designer, Gouch, about the severity of the weather in that location.

Dr A A Griffith (1893 - 1963), who headed the aircraft engine department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment after WW1, put back the development of the jet engine by several years. Griffith rejected Whittle’s proposals for a jet engine, reporting to the UK government that a jet engine could never work. In consequence, the government refused to fund its development.

The list goes on and on. There seems to be a strong human instinct that is averse to new ideas and discoveries, and many who somehow believe that by vociferous opposition that they can "Photoshop" them out of existence. I wish I could say that discoveries always reach the light, but I believe that, in science or technology, it is only true if there exists a counter-force to the instincts to resist change: a healthy, altruistic community of peers.

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