The annals of Science
are filled with world-class assholes
- loudmouthed cretins
who have nothing better to do except scream
at their peers
, treat commoner
s like worms
, and occasionally do some real work
on the side. Even worse, some of the most well-known
and respected scientist
s were like that - Issac Newton
comes to mind. (You thought all scientists were lighthearted soul
s like Einstein
? Think again.) The constant successes of their theories
only made matters worse.
One guy like that was Norman Lockyer, a British scientist from Victorian times. He was a born golfer; I am implying all the worst stereotypes of overcompetitive duffers here. (He did write one of the first golf rulebooks, the first one officially used at the hallowed ground of St. Andrews - and he probably did it to prove that he beat a fellow golfer fair and square, too.) He made some brilliant measurements of Greek and other ancient cultures' architecture, revealing their relationship with the daily passage of the sun (and he wouldn't let you forget it, either). And, in case if you weren't aware of his scientific beliefs, he started a periodical, intending to spread said beliefs to the far corners of the Earth. (This periodical, Nature, became the most respected scientific periodical of its time - after the cheif editor, Lockyer, aged and softened a bit.)
One point that he hammered on? That a single dark line he measured in a spectrum was evidence of a never-seen-before element, one that existed in the sun. The Greeks named the sun helios; Lockyer named this element helium.
A quick primer on spectroscopy - if you heat an element until it emits light, and pass that light through a prism, the Newtonian spectrum of colors you might expect won't appear. The element emits light at very distinct frequencies, so you'll find a number of very bright bands of light. Now, if you pass white light through that heated element, and check the spectrum, you'll find the opposite - dark lines where the white ones were. The element absorbs light on the same frequency it emits at, and the atoms in the element are absorbing those specific frequencies of light and then scattering that light in all directions. This way, people would discover the chemical composition of things - purify a sample until you get an element or a simple molecule, and check the spectrum. If you find new lines that no one has seen before, you might have a new element.
So, when we're talking about the sun, you jury-rig a prism to a telescope and watch the spectrum that results. For the sun, the spectrum gets captured whenever there's an eclipse - astronomers check the corona of the sun, where it's possible to see pure(r) elements. Lockyer was one of the first to use this method, and he proved the existence of hydrogen in the sun this way in 1868. This being the uptight era of Queen Victoria, a scientist needed permission to work on a problem where another had first staked a claim. Lockyer never let anyone measure the corona, annexing it as his own (asshole). James Maxwell, a contemporary, wrote a bit of doggerel to commemorate this fine person's generosity.
And Lockyer, and Lockyer
Gets cockier and cockier
He thinks he's the owner
Of the solar corona.
OK, it's not Shakespeare, but we're working on it.
Lockyer, now master of his domain, free from the meddling of others, continued measuring, eventually discovering a line in the middle of some well-known sodium markers. This was 1869. He took this single line to be proof of a new element and began trumpeting this in Nature, waiting for someone to come and discover this new element somewhere on Earth.
And he waited. 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. Many other spectroscopic predictions were failing - one (relatively) famous one being 'jargonium', whose chemical markers ended up being false due to inaccurate equipment. People began teasing Lockyer - where was this mysterious element? (Few wished for Lockyer's continued success.) Maybe the sun's extreme temperature and pressure had fooled Lockyer, making a known element act differently, they reasoned. Except that Lockyer measured the solar corona, which is only six thousand degrees celsius - they could do that in a laboratory then, and no dice on the testing. Other people confirmed Lockyer's line - no bad equipment on his part. Many scientists started hoping that the light from the sun was different from light we could reproduce here.
And that's the interesting part. It is scientific dogma to assume that if something happens at point X, you should be able to recreate it at point Y. Otherwise, all scientific tests could be disputed - "Of course we didn't end up with the same results! You're in Ipswitch, and I'm in Albuquerqe..." Even more, ever since that obnoxious twit, Newton, got brained by ripe fruit, it has been assumed that the heavens worked under the same laws as the Earth. And all these scientists who were sick of Lockyer and his bleedin' mouth and just wanted to prove him wrong? They were treading dangerous ground. Prove that light from the sun is fundamentally different from light on Earth and you blow away two good centuries of science.
But then a fine experimental scientist by the name of William Ramsay came along with the world's first sample of helium. He'd been messing around with air, and had discovered argon jointly with Lord Rayleigh; now he was hunting down even more strange gases, these from a uranium compound called crevicite. Sure enough, one of the purified gases had the same spectrum that was seen by Lockyer. This was in 1895, 26 years later. Lockyer was finally vindicated; scientists the world over were heard to mutter, "fuck, here comes the bragging again..."