Magazine article Natural History

Milestones

Magazine article Natural History

Milestones

Article excerpt

Dennis Flanagan, the founding editor of the modern Scientific American, who died this past January on the day the Huygens space probe landed on Titan, never liked anniversaries. They were lame excuses, in his estimation, for the common practice of filling magazines with articles that wouldn't stand up without the crutch of the calendar. Yet I think Flanagan would have enjoyed the coincidence between the imminent results from Gravity Probe B (see Arthur Fisher's article "Testing Einstein (Again)," page 52) and this year's centennial of Einstein's annus mirabilis (see Robert Anderson's column "Einsteiniana," page 72).

To the physicists who designed Gravity Probe B, the coincidence must seem an absurdist joke. The project is a space-based test of Einstein's general theory of relativity, but it was his special theory, not the general theory, that was published in 1905. More to the point, the project was begun in 1959 and, by all original estimates, should have concluded decades ago. Maybe Flanagan's impatience with the counterfeit currency of anniversaries was well founded.

His impatience with cranks certainly was. A crank, according to Flanagan, is anyone who "believes something that on the face of it is unbelievable." Apart from the curved space-time of Einstein's universe, no other scientific principle acts more like flypaper for cranks than does evolutionary biology. The reason, no doubt, is that it makes seemingly remarkable claims about familiar things: flowers, trees, snakes, human beings. …

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