Archive: The Lone Ranger in Science Is Sometimes the Good Guy
Grote Reber’s story is little known but important. Here it is again from 21 years ago.
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The Lone Ranger in Science Is Sometimes the Good Guy 02/06/2003
Can you do good scientific work outside the establishment these days? Consider the storybook case of Grote Reber (1911-2002).
Nature Feb. 6 published an obituary to this “father of radio astronomy.” Reber went against the grain all the way, but was ultimately vindicated. In 1933, the mainstream astronomers paid no attention to Karl Jansky’s discovery of radio waves coming from the galactic center, but Reber had the insight to discern this was significant. Unable to get support or funding, he scraped together his own savings (partly by using public transportation) and built his own crude radio telescope in his backyard. Though gaining success in detecting astronomical radio sources, he had difficulty getting his papers published. Nature describes the establishment opinion at the time: “According to Reber, the professionals thought ‘the whole affair was at best a mistake and at worst, a hoax’.”
But they were wrong. Anyone who has seen the huge radio dishes at Arecibo or Jodrell Bank and around the world understands the phenomenal importance of radio astronomy today. Grote Reber maintained his disdain for the ivory tower throughout his career, saying, “There were no self-appointed pontiffs looking over my shoulder giving bad advice. The kinds of things I want to do are the kind establishment men will not have any part of.”
And they disdained him, too. The obituary states, “Throughout his career, he was unable to secure funding from any of the conventional sources, such as the US National Science Foundation or the Department of Defense. Instead, he relied on modest support from the New York-based Research Corporation, as well as his own personal funds.” But wisdom is justified by her children. Nature concludes,
Although Karl Jansky was the first to detect cosmic radio emission, it was Reber who, through his innovative experiments, forceful personality and stubborn persistence, finally convinced astronomers that it might be important and opened a new window on the Universe.
Until a few months before his death on 20 December 2002, two days before his 91st birthday, Reber continued to be active on a variety of scientific, political and social issues. He argued, with equal enthusiasm, against the Big Bang Universe and the increasing use of fossil fuels, and took a public stand against ‘big science’. He was described by some as a genius, by others as a crackpot; but he was ultimately recognized by the astronomy community with the award of most of its major prizes.
After World War II, “Former radar scientists and astronomers, primarily in the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands, built a series of ever more powerful radio telescopes. With them, they made remarkable discoveries that have changed our fundamental understanding of the Universe.”
This is an interesting case study on many fronts, but caution must be exercised in drawing general principles. It is true that it is nearly impossible today to succeed without a thorough scientific education, and very difficult in many fields to avoid pseudoscience without a PhD, peer review and collaboration. (But New Scientist interviews a Royal Society physicist who thinks peer review is meaningless, corrupt, and disintegrating.) Practically gone are the days of the generalist like Huygens or Pascal, or the home scientists like Leeuwenhoek. There’s just too much to know before you can even start. Often it takes funding and elaborate equipment and training to be a scientist, and usually that presupposes rubbing shoulders with professionals at a university or research lab. Goodness knows there are self-appointed quacks around who think their pet theory is going to overturn everything everybody knows.
Yet science did arise among individualists and creative thinkers who worked out of love for the truth. It would be good for scientists today to remember those roots, and to look carefully at the recent case of Grote Reber. Aside from his political or cosmological views, Reber’s story shows that the establishment can be wrong. The troublemaking outsider can be right. Science cannot predict where the next major discovery will come from, and scientists are sometimes the worst judges of their own biases. Instead of being a culture medium for discovery, a scientific institution like a university or journal can sometimes stifle initiative and enforce conformity to the currently accepted views or priorities. How many grad students have had their advisors counsel them not to work on a subject they were interested in, for other than noble reasons? (For instance, Robert Gentry was not allowed to pursue a PhD on radiohaloes, because his advisor was afraid it might embarrass the school, so Gentry went on to do excellent work on this subject on his own.)
Ivory tower scientific institutions can be so set in their ways, so resistant to new ideas, that they can sometimes actually hinder scientific progress while wearing the banner of Science – analogous to the religious institutions that Jesus criticized, saying “For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matt. 23:13). The door can become the barrier. Like with big business or big churches or big politics, “big science” can succumb to the motto of the shortsighted, “We never did it that way before.” Worse, political decisions over funding can dictate what questions are “interesting” and worth pursuing. Today, astrobiology (with no data) is ‘in’, and intelligent design (with truckloads of data) is ‘out’. But what’s considered trendy today does not necessarily correlate with the validity of the ideas involved.
So who is today’s Grote Reber? Who is today’s rugged individualist looking for the truth without need for “help” from the “self-appointed pontiffs” who merely get in their way to discourage them? We can think of other examples, like Raymond Damadian and Bernard d’Abrera. It might even be your kid in the upcoming Science Fair.
Footnote: radio telescopes played a big part in Henry Richter‘s career at NASA. He was a pioneer of the Deep Space Network with its huge arrays of radio dishes that monitor most of our satellites that travel to the planets.