Theory CAN run ahead of practice

August 21, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |



From a Reader:

Revolution’s article “The Total Solar Eclipse of 2017: A Cool Darkness that Shines Light on How Reality Works” points out how science allows us to understand things that appeared in ancient times to be the capricious actions of gods. The ability of science to predict exactly where and when a solar eclipse will occur is a tribute to the power of science to explain the world we live in.

But solar eclipses have also contributed to the development of science itself. During a solar eclipse in 1868, scientists for the first time investigated the spectrum of the light from the sun’s corona—the bright gases that surround the sun and which are visible only during an eclipse when they appear as a bright ring around the moon that is blocking out the sun itself. What they found was a bright line in the yellow part of the spectrum of this light that had never been observed before. Such lines are associated with the light emitted by various elements when heated. But this new line did not correspond to the spectral emissions of any known element.

The scientists observing this phenomenon correctly hypothesized that the bright spectral emission was caused by a previously unknown element which they named “helium” after Helios, the ancient Greek sun god. It was not until 1895 that chemists finally found and isolated the gas helium on earth. Helium was actually found on the sun before it was found on earth. The fact that helium was found in theory before it was found in practice was a striking example of theory running ahead of practice.

Another example of science developing from eclipses happened during a solar eclipse in 1919. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity had revealed that the phenomenon of gravity—the appearance of bodies of mass to attract each other—was actually caused by the fact that space itself is curved in areas around bodies of mass. But if space itself were curved, then not only would the path of moving objects be affected but the path taken by light would be “bent” by this curvature as well. In particular, beams of light moving close to and past the sun would be deflected out of their normal path and toward the sun. But this phenomenon was extremely difficult to observe because the blinding light of the sun normally makes it impossible to observe stars in the sky that are close to the sun.

During a total eclipse of the sun, however, it is suddenly possible to see stars in the sky around the sun. In 1919 two British astronomers traveled to an island off the coast of Africa to photograph the stars visible around the sun during the eclipse. When they compared these photographs with photographs of the same region of the sky taken at night when the sun was not present, the positions of stars were in fact moved toward the sun just as Einstein had predicted. This was yet again an example of theory running ahead of practice!

As Bob Avakian has discussed, precisely because theory can run ahead of practice—rather than simply summing up what has already happened—revolutionary theory enables us to see AND ACT ON what is possible for the emancipation of humanity rather than being restricted by what already exists. Yes, science rocks!




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