Looking for home

Ambika Kamath | Updated on January 24, 2018

Get the drift: German meteorologist Alfred Wegener proposedthat today’s continents are fragments of a single landmass, an ideathat was accepted decades later. -- ShutterstockAnton Balazh/

In the world of science, an idea can remain lonely for decades, even centuries, before anyone takes it seriously

By some estimates, the average person has 30,000 thoughts a day. Imagine that. If your brain were a sink, your thoughts would be like the incessant tip-tip-tip of a slowly dripping tap. Most of these thoughts fall straight into the drain. Others bounce around the sink briefly, before falling too, into an uninteresting void. Only a few of your thoughts make their way out of the sink into the world, but just as drops of water may evaporate or may end up in a glass of nimbu pani, the fate of your thoughts is anything but certain.

Of course, not all ideas deserve to land somewhere significant. Most ideas ought to be, and are, inconsequential. Other ideas are consequential, but only incrementally so; these ideas enter a world that’s ready for them, and find their place in it without ceremony or controversy. And then there are ideas that deserve to have an impact, but don’t. I like to think of these ideas, which are ahead of their time and threaten established ways of thinking, as lonely.

For these lonely ideas to find a home, people need to change their minds, and, as everyone knows from their experience of other people’s intransigence, changing minds is hard. Lonely ideas may wander for decades, centuries even, before anyone takes them seriously. In the world of science, where taking an idea seriously means investing time and resources and energy into collecting evidence that supports or disproves that idea, lonely ideas abound.

But in an ironic twist, the stories of lonely scientific ideas can take on mythic proportions after the ideas become established. After all, who doesn’t love the story of an underdog’s triumph? So the history of science is peppered with the tales of scientists, often outsiders of some sort, who spent their lives fighting unnecessarily Sisyphean battles to convince the scientific establishment of a fact that, in hindsight, seems so obviously true.

A few weeks ago, I solicited my friends’ favourite stories of lonely scientific ideas, asking on Facebook, “can you think of a scientific idea that someone had long before his or her time, one that’s been borne out with time and more research?” By happy accident, two of these suggestions fit together beautifully. The first was a well-known example of a lonely idea: the theory of continental drift. Proposed by the now-famous German meteorologist Alfred Wegener in 1915, this theory suggests that today’s continents are fragments of a single ancient landmass, Pangaea, that have drifted apart over millions of years. Though widely accepted today, continental drift was for long a lonely idea.

The second suggestion was the discovery of a new species of caecilian in Assam in 1904, by the British naturalist Alfred Alcock. Caecilians are curious worm-like amphibians that live below ground in many tropical countries.

When Alcock found this particular legless, almost-eyeless animal, he quickly recognised that some of its closest known relatives were found in faraway Western Africa and Central America, and he puzzled over this disjointed distribution. It’s easy to see how travelling from continent to continent would be difficult for anything that looks and lives like a caecilian, which can neither fly nor swim and cannot be carried for long distances in either the wind or a salty ocean current. As Alcock put it, “it can hardly be supposed that the immediate ancestors of a form that is modified for underground life… could be transported through 170 degrees of meridian and across great oceans solely by those distributing agencies that are recognised by zoologists who maintain that continents and oceans are permanent.” In other words, the existence of this c convinced Alcock that the landscape of Earth’s surface must have changed with time.

Today, the second Alfred is as obscure as the amphibian he discovered — I only learnt what a caecilian is a few years ago, and a month ago I’d never heard of Alcock. In contrast, I learnt Wegener’s name in geography class in the eighth standard. Today he’s a staple of science textbooks, but during his lifetime, Wegener battled to convince scientists that the continents have shifted. He collected mountains of evidence in support of continental drift (and really, wouldn’t you have to be at least slightly intrigued by the near-perfect fit between the coastlines of Africa and South America?), but geologists remained unconvinced for another half-century. Meanwhile, naturalists continued to document the odd global distributions of plants and animals that, like the caecilian, made a strong case for a mutable Earth. Had the two men’s ideas met, as they recently did on my Facebook page, Alfred Wegener may well have found a supporter in Alfred Alcock. As it were, Wegener’s theory of continental drift was destined for an interlude of loneliness before finding universal renown. Nonetheless, I find it comforting to picture an idea that’s lonely in one intellectual community finding a cosy home in another, like a drop of water sliding off a leaf into a gushing monsoon stream.

(Ambika Kamath studies organismic evolutionary biology at Harvard University)

Published on June 12, 2015

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