Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Great Feuds In Science

Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

After some heavy titles, I wanted to go for something a little more light hearted. In between Structure of Scientific Revolutions and The Day the Universe Changed, I found this little gem tucked between them. While the other two are heavy on history and on science,  Great Feuds In Science by Hal Hellman is heavier on the more petty human emotions that tend to get in between science and discovery. It reminds us that, while we like to think about science being an orderly march from point A to point B over time, history has shown us that the actual path is anything but straight or orderly; more times than not, people’s ego’s tend to be as much of a hindrance as a help when it comes to science developments.

This is a series of books; Great Feuds also has titles related to mathematics, medicine and technology. In this title, we see some of the great match-ups that shaped the scientific world; from Galileo vs. Pope Urban VIII on the center of the universe, to Wallis and Hobbes regarding squaring the circle and the development of higher mathematics. Newton and Leibniz take each other on regarding Physics and Calculus, while Voltaire and Needham debate and excoriate one another on the generations of life. Cope and Marsh duke it out in the wild west of Palaeontology, while Darwin’s defenders and detractors mix it up in the debate over Evolution vs. Creation. Lord Kelvin and his time’s Geologists & Biologists go toe to toe over the age of Earth. Wegener battles everyone to show his theory of Continental Drift, while Johanson and Leakey get into it regarding the history of human evolution and who came first and where. Finally, Freeman goes up against the ghost of Margaret Mead regarding nature/nurture in Anthropology.

What’s interesting about this book is to see just how often the conflicts and the testimonies of the time, in prose both revealing and biting, shows the temperaments of the figures and how they developed ideas, defended them, refuted others, and generally squabbled amongst themselves to help develop the scientific give and take that helped create many of the theories of their times. Some of the theories have given sway to others, and some of the debates are still with us here and now. In our sphere as testers, we often find that there are dissenting views, contrasting viewpoints, and dare I say it, a few larger than life personalities that frequently dominate the conversation at various times. We may feel as though we are an anomaly, that other disciplines don’t have these conflicts. What makes Great Feuds both entertaining and cathartic is the fact that, it shows that, in all scientific discipline, it has been ever thus. Knowledge rarely travels in a straight line with development naturally following on from earlier developments, but rather it takes side trips through people’s angst, prejudices, ego and attitudes, as well as the desire to be right.

Sometimes theories that are ridiculed and fought by the orthodox view of the time slowly gains momentum and takes over as the prevalent view, but it rarely happens without a lot of give and take, not to mention a fair amount of bluster and brow-beating. Hellman has given us a view into the world of the benighted greats of science, and peels back the genteel veneer to show that science is a living and breathing organism, one that has its awkward stages, mis-steps, and lurches forward rather than the stately and dignified progression that is portrayed in schools. For those who are fans of science, and enjoy the opportunities to see the way that science develops, warts and all, and want to have an enjoyable and somewhat quick read, Hellman’s Great Feuds in Science makes for great fun.


Anonymous said...

MIchael, if you're looking to augment science teaching with some stories of epic feuds, don't overlook the Westinghouse-Edison feud over which form of electrical power was better: AC (Westinghouse) or DC (Edison).

When I say it was "epic" I'm not kidding. It was not a clinically detached, airy-fairy sort of feud as many are in science. This was carried out in the popular press, and at stake was the electrification of the US.


Michael Larsen said...

Hi Dsa, thanks for the comment.

I remember reading about the Ediston-Westinghouse feud, and about the fact that DC was primarily used in the prison system for the electric chair. Edison was greatly angered that this was going to be the legacy for which DC (and subsequently, he) would become primarily known. Too bad he couldn't foresee the portable electronic devices that would cover the landscape, and knowing that virtually all of them run on DC :).

Simon Morley said...

Hi Michael, I enjoy your series of book reviews. I haven't heard of this book - but your description of the feuds reminds me of Bryson's "Short history of nearly everything" - it was a while since I read it (and haven't got it to hand) - but it has the paleantology spat and Lord Kelvin's pronouncements on the age of the earth - interesting read, if only for the "behind-the-curtain" stories.

Michael Larsen said...

Thanks for the comment, Simon :).

This was a totally happenstance find, and I picked it up just for the fun of it, and found quite a bit of the rhetoric and the posturing to be oh so familiar to our "tester wars" today.