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True Anomalies (Tales from the History of Science)

This is an experiment in telling stories about science.  It’s not always easy to understand the world around us, but people have been trying for a very long time – often in inspiring, surprising, and entertaining ways!

True Anomalies is something of a cross between history of science and science communication. The idea came out of a collaborative project with PHD Comics called PHD TV, which produces short videos about science and academia in a variety of styles and on all kinds of topics.  Stories from the past are a compelling way to draw a broad audience, but stories about science history are rarely included in popular science efforts, except as (often myth-based) anecdotes.  There’s so much more to it than that! This blog and the web video series on which it’s based make up my response to this gap, combining compelling stories from the history of science with fun and clear scientific context, and a little bit of myth-busting. It’s an experiment!

The name comes from two places:  first, in celestial mechanics, the “true anomaly” is one of six orbital elements that defines the location in space of a body in orbit around the sun (or another star).  Five of those elements define the ellipse of the orbit (three to define the shape plus two angles to orient it in space) and the true anomaly is the sixth, the one that tells you where along that path your object is at any given time.  “Anomaly” also means something to historians of science:  in Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it’s a discrepancy that arises between observation and current theory.  At first, these anomalies aren’t taken too seriously, but eventually enough of them accumulate that researchers begin to doubt the current paradigm, and a period of crisis begins from which a new paradigm can emerge.  That’s just one idea for how science and experiments and discoveries work, and there are many more and varied theories on all of these topics.  What Kuhn’s anomalies highlight is how ambiguous scientific results can be.  Is this anomaly a mistake, or is it revealing something new about the world?  Whatever the time period, people engaging with the natural world have been grappling with this question, trying to take what they know and use it to make sense of their observations.  In telling these tales from the history of science, I hope to preserve their historical context while exploring the scientific issues involved and our modern understanding of them.  Of course, I also hope they’re just plain fun and interesting, so enjoy!

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