The chilling effects of scientific paradigms -- kinetic theory edition

Back in high school, most of us were introduced to the kinetic theory of gases, with due mention of key 19th Century contributors such as Clausius, Maxwell, and Van der Waals. But who among us heard of John James Waterston (1811 – 1883), the forgotten trail-blazer?

Stephen Brush wrote a rather interesting book (in two volumes) about the difficult birth of this branch of science – “The Kind of Motion We Call Heat: A history of the kinetic theory of gases in the 19th Century”, ISBN 0-444-11011-9, (1976) – which includes Waterston’s stillbirth of the theory.

Born in Edinburgh, Waterston had joined the East India Company, and did sufficiently well eventually to return home to Scotland and devote his efforts to research on gases. Those were the days when an individual could work at the forefront of science without the backing of a massive government grant!

In 1845, Waterston sent a paper to the Royal Society in London titled “On the physics of media that are composed of free and elastic molecules in a state of motion”. Today, that title would seem trite. In 1845, the Royal Society was sufficiently shocked by Waterston’s unconventional thinking outside the then-bounds of respectable science that they not only refused to print the paper, they refused even to return Waterston’s manuscript to him. It lay ignored in the Royal Society’s archives for decades.

More than four decades later, by which time the kinetic theory of gases was becoming better accepted in scientific circles, Lord Rayleigh (who was then President of the Royal Society) happened to learn about Waterston’s manuscript. To his great credit, Lord Rayleigh then had the paper published in 1891, along with his apology for the Royal Society’s failure to recognize its paradigm-challenging value when it had first been received. Unfortunately, this was too late for Waterston, who had died 8 years earlier.

This is only one of the stumbles Brush discusses in the long course of development of modern science’s kinetic theory.


The Royal Society became a crypto-theocracy – what overt religionists nowadays call “scientism”. Ask John Harrison. Kuhn screwed up (albeit not as badly as his colleague Popper with his “falsification” dogma that suppressed popular understanding of Solomonoff’s proof) when he assigned dogmatic adherence to standardization of scientific theory to the vague notion of “paradigm”.

That might as well be titled “The chilling effects of crypto-theocracy”.

From “A Protestant Instauration”:

However the principle of regional religious autonomy, with individual choice supported by assortative migration, was ultimately victorious with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

Then, in 1667, England’s Royal Society, quite deliberately, conspired to divide secular from religious authority. Ostensibly this was to free the advancement of the natural sciences from conflicts with religion. It is telling that The Royal Society justified this schism by pointing to the dangers of “religious enthusiasm” that had been sweeping the country. The Greek term “enthuse” means “god-within”. This “god-within”, according to Plato, is the source of all wisdom and has priority over reason. The Royal Society, then, was attempting to “free” science of what the Platonists saw as the source of wisdom.

However, the fault-line would eventually find its way, largely through men of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke, to do the impossible:

Divide the Individual

This pseudo-individual of the Enlightenment consisted of a natural object – a body – and an abstract object – mind – “free” of nature or any “god-within”.

A crypto-theocracy like The Royal Society is even worse than an honest theocracy because of its pretense donning the the holy robes of “objectivity” with authoritative access to “The Truth” while rent-seeking the life blood of real scientists. At least priests of an openly faith-based polity might be admonished to restrain themselves – especially if they must permit their “sheep” to flee their authority via assortative migration taking territorial value with them.