In 1951, the brilliant British scientist Alan Turing published a paper proposing a theory in chemistry called morphogenesis, which explains how cells are grouped together within an organism.
According to Turing, oscillating chemical reactions predictable by mathematical formula are partially responsible for organizing cells to form organs, bone, and tissue. Of course, Turing’s greatest claim to fame was his role as the leader of the team that remarkably broke the Enigma code during World War II, the secret German code once considered unbreakable, as depicted in the excellent film The Imitation Game.
Unfortunately, Turing committed suicide only three years after his paper on morphogenesis was published, after his prosecution for the “crime” of being homosexual. Alan Turing didn’t live to see the publication of evidence that would have validated his theory almost immediately.
Only a few years after Turing’s paper on morphogenesis was published, chemist Boris Belousov mixed potassium bromate with citric acid, discovering that the blended mixture changed colors as the fluids oscillated and chemicals reacted, which seems to prove Turing’s theory. And as these videos illustrate, the phenomenon is actually very easy to replicate by experiment.
However, when Belousov attempted to have his research published in 1951, the leading scientific journals flatly rejected his work, based on the assumption that the experiment results were “impossible.”
Only a single paragraph from Belousov’s analysis was finally published four years later, in 1955. Alan Turing was already dead. And so was the career of Boris Belousov, so disgusted the editors of the leading journals had flatly rejected his work without even trying to replicate the results that he stopped performing scientific research.
The reason his discovery is also named after Anatol Zhabotinsky is because the latter discovered Belousov’s research and performed a very similar experiment, successfully publishing the results of his work in 1968.
Zhabotinsky used a slightly different chemical solution than Belousov, substituting melonic acid for citric acid to increase the visibility of the reactions.
Because of the role he played in the discovery of the B/Z reaction, Zhabotinsky has been called the father of nonlinear chemical dynamics. But does that make Boris Belousov the grandfather?
A horribly flawed peer review process utterly failed Boris Belousov. The editors of science journals successfully asserted themselves as the arbiters of what may be considered acceptable science, and their power remains largely unchecked even today.
In reality, the contemporaries of Boris Belousov were not his peers. Fortunately (for the advancement of science, at least) Anatol Zhabotinsky was Belousov’s intellectual equal, and a true scientist who appreciated the power of discovery via experiment.
Rather than simply assuming that some process or claim is “impossible,” perhaps we should seriously consider at minimum a cursory investigation of the alleged evidence. Quid est veritas?
Opinions may change over time, but truth never changes.
Peer review is a horribly flawed system, but unfortunately, it remains the best system we have.