MadSci Network: Astronomy

Re: Is Dewey B. Larson for real?

Date: Wed Jul 28 12:12:18 1999
Posted By: Jeff Brown, Faculty, Astronomy, Washington State University
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 933033011.As

I'd never heard of Dewey Larson before your query. There are places which seem to indicate that the fellow did really exist (though he is now deceased) and published half a dozen books in the 1950's through 1980's, all of them based on what I will politely call nonstandard physical theories. I also hadn't previously heard of "The International Society of Unified Science", on whose WWW site his works seem to appear. I can't find anything about either Larson or the Society which is not of their own authorship, except that lists Larson's books as out of print -- which at least means that they did exist at one time.

I wouldn't go so far as to label them a hoax at this point, but what I read on their sites about astronomy is sadly out of date and incompatible with observations now. What I read also leans heavily on vague double-talk, with a dearth of quantitative predictions concrete enough to be disproven. There are hand-waving comments, but very few predictive numbers, and a careful selection of comments from old scientific literature to convey an inaccurate impression of large-scale ignorance, confusion, and contention among the mainstream scientific community which they purport to settle. These are known, standard tactics for people trying to "sell" a fringe idea which is either questionable or outright wrong.

I did find a couple of clearly and demonstrably incorrect claims despite the vagueness of most of their presentation. I limited myself to the work on stars, because I know that best. Example 1: in their view of stellar evolution stars begin as red dwarfs (low surface temperature, low luminosity) and as they grow older their density, temperature, and luminosity increase, culminating in an explosion. I'd want to see numerical predictions of the history of the Sun: how old it is, how its luminosity has changed with time, how fast it should be changing now, and so on. We know from the fossil record, however, that the surface temperature of the Earth hasn't changed very much over the planet's history, and since this temperature reflects at least partially the energy input from the Sun, the solar luminosity can't have changed by very much either, maybe a factor of two. That sounds like a lot, but the red dwarfs which are the supposed early stage for the Sun are thousands of times less luminous than the Sun is now. This kind of luminosity is incompatible with the geologic record.

Example 2: the prediction is made that hotter and brighter main sequence stars are denser than the cooler and fainter ones; this is directly contradicted by observations of stars. We can estimate masses and diameters of stars in some binary star systems in which the two stars happen to take turns blocking our view of each other -- these are called eclipsing binaries. By taking repeated spectroscopic observations of the stars we can work out the the orbits of the stars around each other. This involves using the Doppler effect (see here, among many other places on the web, for something about it) to tell how fast the stars are moving -- this same physical effect is used by radar "guns" to measure the speeds of stars, and then using three of Issac Newton's inventions, calculus and the laws of motion and gravitation, to solve for the orbit. (There's a nice description of binary star orbits here. Many of the properties of orbits were discovered by Kepler when analyzing observations of the planets; Newton developed the physics and mathematical tools for understanding why those are.) The orbit tells us how fast the stars are moving, so using that and timing how long the eclipses last tells us how big the stars are (that is, their diameters). The orbit also tells us how much mass there is in the system (the more mass, the more gravity, and the faster things move). Once we have both the mass and the diameter of the stars, then we know the density as quickly as we can do the geometry problem of computing the volume of a sphere when given its diameter; density is equal to mass divided by volume. Once you've done the measurements, the numbers indicate that among main sequence stars the hottest, most luminous stars have the lowest density, while the cool, low-luminosity dwarfs have the highest density.

Example 3: In some of the stuff "worked out" about the structure of the Sun and the nature of sunspots, the implication is clearly made that the oblateness of the Sun (that is, how flattened the Sun's disk appears to us) should change over the course of the 11-year sunspot cycle, in the sense that it should become more oblate as the cycle progresses and sunspots appear at lower solar latitudes. This also is directly contradicted by observations: the oblateness of the Sun is constant over time within the accuracy of our measurements.

There are certainly other problems with their work. I picked out three items that I spotted quickly and could refute in a short amount of time.

In my view, rather than merely a hoax, this is more likely to be the product of one or more sincere crackpots. There's no shortage of these in the world (it's rare for most astronomy departments to go a month without getting a letter or monograph from one), and it has to be admitted (as one of my favorite editors once observed) that some crackpots have highly methodical cracks in their pots. (There's a great editorial in the October 1980 issue of Analog magazine about crackpots it you're interested in seeing other aspects of them.) Sincerity of belief is all that separates the crackpot from the fraud, however, and history is full of examples of people adhering to ideas that turned out to be very wrong.

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