• R. S. Rowland

Ignored scientists

Blue jet
Blue jet taken with high speed camera

Why do people ignore smart people? You might be tempted to attribute this to the Dunning-Kruger effect but even people who know better engage in group poohpoohing. This is a post specifically about two people who, like Gregor Mendel (genetics) or Ignaz Semmelweis (doctors should wash their hands before operating or doing other doctor stuff), were dismissed or ridiculed by everyone after finding something cool (or important). Even other scientists. Now, after being put through the press gang of pursuing my masters and PhD, I can clearly see from whence this comes (I still have the scars). I quickly discovered that part of the appeal of entering any field of science is the anticipation of tearing each other’s work to pieces before, during and even after the peer review process. It’s like sport for many which makes the whole “climate change is a global hoax perpetrated by scientists” thing beyond ridiculous (more on this in a later post). But it also ensures that we have great stuff (like cell phones and cancer treatment) and advancements in every field of study.

So, despite the rigors of scientific research and review, some worthy ideas do occasionally fall through the 1 micron sieve. It’s a shame really since many of the folks who’ve been ignored throughout history have proposed not just hypotheses about cool and interesting phenomena, but their work, if adopted earlier, could have saved thousands of lives (read handwashing). This post will discuss several of my favorite awesomely fascinating phenomena that someone observed, proposed hypotheses on and then were immediately ignored. Guys who were later proved right but at the time were probably snickered at in the faculty dining room, derided at the International Conference on Cool-Crap-That-No-One-Understands-Yet, and from whom everyone else scurried away at faculty mixers.

Red sprite
Red sprite appearing above a thunderstorm.

While not as life-altering as being operated on by interns who haven’t bothered to wash their hands after dissecting the rotting corpse down the hall, exhibit A is just plain incredible. And we could’ve been enjoying its awesomeness for many more years if it weren’t for the scoffers. I give you blue jets and red sprites. Triggered by positive charges between the cloud and ground, sprites are reddish discharges of lightning above thunderstorms. Sprites take on the form of giant jelly fish, their feathery tentacles dangling below them as they float ethereally above the clouds. Jets, usually blue in color, are optical ejections from the top of the electrically active core of thunderstorms, but are not directly associated with cloud-to-ground lightning. After emerging from the top of a thundercloud, they typically propagate upward in narrow cones. Both sprites and jets are rare, wispy faint and are shorter lived than regular lightning, literally disappearing in a flash.

Johann Estor

These fantastical phenomena were first observed in 1730 by Johann Georg Estor after having ascended the highest peak in the Vogelsberg mountain range of Hesse in Germany during a thunderstorm. He could see the top of the clouds from that altitude and recorded seeing “flashes mounted as well directly up into the sky”. He was promptly ignored. Not only were Estor’s observations dismissed, but as humans took to the air, it turns out that the things were again being seen by pilots, a skittish lot when it comes to reporting anything unusual for fear of being labeled crazy. It wasn’t until July 1989 that the first (accidental) picture of a red sprite was captured by retired physicist, John R. Winckler, who was, of course, not studying this new class of lightning. Nonetheless, Dr. Winckler concluded that the cloud-to-ionosphere lightning deserved further study.

The May, 1995, issue of Sky & Telescope contains a letter from one Stuart L. Becher. He wrote that he was personally gratified that the sprite phenomenon had at last been recognized as real, and then relates witnessing them twenty-five years ago when he was serving in Vietnam. Poor fellow. He’d actually described his observations to physicists and atmospheric scientists, who reacted as you might expect. I’m sure the eyerolling could be heard for blocks. Of course, who would believe a veteran combat pilot who had seen the things firsthand? You know how unreliable and flakey combat pilots are.

Shortly after being observed by Dr. Winckler, several research projects were organized with his help and a review of videos taken from the space shuttle commenced revealing even more images of them. Funny old world. Turns out Estor hadn’t been seeing things after all.

And then there was poor Wasaburo Ooishi. Ooishi was a late 19th - early 20th century Japanese meteorologist who, after studying upper-air meteorology in Germany, was appointed director of Japan’s first upper-air observatory in August 1920. As the observatory began gathering data from balloon launches, Ooishi soon noticed that strong westerly winds were persistent over Japan, especially during the winter. The consensus of the day was that these high speed wind currents were rare anomalies perhaps best left for hobby research. But by 1926, his collected data clearly showed that the high, strong westerly winds that had been considered an oddity were indeed an almost semi-permanent feature that we now know as the jet stream. He immediately published a paper on his impressive discovery.

And of course, he was very much correct. There are several jets that streak across the planet in semi-permanent locations from 6 to 10 miles above the earth. These rivers of high speed winds, sometimes exceeding 200 mph, flow around the boundaries between hot and cold air, conforming to the Coriolis effect and riding along in the predictable waves that undulate across the globe, called Rossby waves. They can be categorized, depending upon their location, as either polar or subtropical and have different development processes based on friction (or rather the lack thereof) along with pressure gradients.

Jet stream map
Current image of North American jet stream locations. (

Now, up until this point, my sympathy for Ooishi was complete and then I discovered that his paper had been published in Esperanto. A wonderful attempt to formulate a common language for the entire world, Esperanto was devised in 1887 and has received a tepid acceptance ever since. I shall interject here that partial blame for being ignored can sometimes fall upon the victim. Publishing research in Esperanto was a commendable effort since Japanese is not a widely used language but Esperanto certainly wasn’t the language of millions either. And that’s where the paper stayed, snuggled in a comfy, obscure room in peer reviewed purgatory sweetly wallpapered in papers published in Esperanto, Njerep and Liki.

And since we’re still talking about things high up, we come back to pilots. In this case, WWII bomber pilots, who noticed that at 30-35,000 ft where they usually hung out, their flights either to or from their targets were frequently being disrupted by extreme headwinds (or helpful tailwinds). To make matters worse, these shifty streams of contentious winds were continually changing locations. Their unpredictable nature made it difficult to plot courses to avoid them which in turn caused pilots to use more fuel as they flew into the strong headwinds along with throwing their bomb drops off target.

Flight of B29 Superfortress bombers, WWII

Unlike with sprites and jets, pilots didn’t seem to have a problem reporting this phenomenon (probably having to explain where all the fuel went contributed to their chattiness on the subject), and research began on trying to explain/predict the crazy high-altitude winds. Of course, this being a military matter, there was no end to the interest in the subject since it was clearly interfering with killing people. So, toward the end of WWII, meteorologists in Guam developed a forecasting model for winds at altitude based on the increasing amount of observations becoming available in hitherto occupied areas.

It should be noted that the first person to have observed jet stream winds firsthand was Wiley Post, the famed American aviator, who in 1933 was the first pilot to fly solo around the world by plane. Post also developed the first pressure suit, allowing him to fly at high altitudes where he encountered jets on several transcontinental flights before his death in 1935. And while the German meteorologist, Heinrich Seilkopf, is credited with labeling the phenomenon with the term, Strahlströmung, or “jet current” in 1939, it was the, by now, quite forgotten Ooishi who recognized and defined the jet stream for what it is.

Wiley Post
Wiley Post with first pressure suit

Happily the story ends on a high (see what I did there) note – sort of. After the war and once occupied Japan had recovered somewhat, Wasaburo Ooishi was finally recognized as the primary discoverer of the phenomenon and the first to publish his findings in a scholarly form. A few years before his death in 1950, his paper on the jet stream was republished by the University of Chicago (not in Esperanto). The ‘sort of’ comes for the fact that most likely, due to the glacial speed of 1940s communication within the scientific publishing world, Ooishi probably never realized his paper was being recognized anew.

In researching this post, I learned that there are whole passels of ignored, even ridiculed, scientists from the past who could easily have carved “See, I Was Right” on their tombstones. Future post will highlight more.

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