The inevitability of scientific progress is regarded as nearly axiomatic. And looking back at the last century, who could argue that we don’t now have a subtler, more detailed understanding of particles and forces and all their attendant interactions than before? But it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the stories physicists (and others) tell are themselves a strange amalgam. One distilled in part from the genuine successes of careful theorizing and experimentation, and in part from the peculiar fads of the age. From an essay by Philip Ball:
Scientists working at the forefront of the invisible will always be confronted with gaps in knowledge, understanding, and experimental capability. In the face of those limits, they draw unconsciously on the imagery of the old stories. This is a necessary part of science, and these stories can sometimes suggest genuinely productive scientific ideas. But the danger is that we will start to believe them at face value, mistaking them for theories.
A reflective examination of the history of ‘science’ might suggest that certain theories, declaimed with great gravity by people with impressive credentials, may someday reveal more about contemporary culture than the secrets of the universe they purport to uncover.
Scientists, familiarized now to the concept of invisible fields, had begun to speculate about non-material beings that inhabit unseen planes of existence. Maxwell’s friends Peter Guthrie Tait and Balfour Stewart, both professors of physics, published The Unseen Universe (1875), in which they presented the ether—supposedly the rarefied fluid that carries Maxwell’s waves—as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, both of which they considered to be populated with intelligences. Some of the pioneers of the telegraph had already drawn parallels with spiritualism, which they called “celestial telegraphy.”
Recognizing at the time which aspects of contemporary theory will hold up, and which will look eccentric or just wrong is the hard part.