After Hours

Weekend Reading: Great Feuds in Science

Looking for an interesting read that will expand your mind? <I>Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever</I>, by Hal Hellman, is a collection of 10 juicy stories about the fascinating lengths scientists have gone to prove themselves right, and more important, to prove others wrong.


You've been staring at your monitor too long. Relax and curl up with a book unrelated to IT, end users, or networks. Weekend Reading has your review.

Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever


By Hal Hellman John Wiley & Sons, 1999 256 pp., softcover 0471350664 $14.35 at fatbrain.com


Hal Hellman can see the big picture. In Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever, he whisks us through 10 of history's most contentious and significant scientific debates. In a book of fewer than 300 pages, he can't give us all the details, but he manages to give us something better. We get to visit and explore the time and place where each dispute took place. By placing each event in context, Hellman gives us a real understanding of these major disagreements, discussions, and fights involving some of the greatest thinkers in our history.

The disputes in question cover a variety of disciplines, including biology, geology, mathematics, astronomy, and anthropology. Some combatants saw their chance at immortality threatened by the views of others, and vowed to go down fighting. Some disputes concerned questions of priority, or “who got there first.” A few disagreements began on scientific grounds, but quickly degenerated into lowbrow name-calling contests that did little to advance scientific knowledge.

The cast of characters
You’ll likely recognize most of the names. The chronological accounts start off with Pope Urban VIII versus Galileo. Driven by anger, frustration, and fear, Urban VIII and his cardinals attacked Galileo and his ideas about a heliocentric, or sun-centered, system. Interestingly, the relationship between the two men had once been friendly. Shortly after Urban’s election in 1623, Galileo was granted six audiences, each lasting more than an hour. Perhaps this relationship led Galileo to believe that he could safely write about his ideas in Dialogue. But in the end, it did not protect him, as he was forced to renounce his theories and suffer house arrest for the rest of his life.

Hellman then takes us on an entertaining trip through time. First, we listen in on the vicious clashes between Newton and Leibniz over who had first discovered the calculus. Then, we discover how the eminent 18th century writer Voltaire became embroiled in a downright nasty feud (and used his powerful pen very effectively) over the process by which each generation produces the next.

Perhaps the most sweeping account is that of the debate concerning evolution. From the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1860 and the religiously and scientifically motivated attacks that soon followed, to the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, to the present-day arguments over whether the theory of evolution will be taught in American public schools, this is a topic that has created an unending number of fascinating debates.

The most recent debate involves one party who is not even living. Margaret Mead had been dead for five years when author Derek Freeman published a book attacking Mead’s most famous anthropological work, Coming of Age in Samoa. This debate raises thought-provoking questions. Can cultural anthropologists reproduce one another’s results, even though the passage of time and the intrusion of the researchers themselves cause changes in societies? Can conclusions based on observations of human behavior and interviews with individuals who may or may not be truthful be trusted? These are but a few of the thought-provoking questions Hellman raises throughout the book.

You can’t go wrong
This little book isn’t only for readers who love science. If you had a bad experience in high school chemistry that makes you shy away from books with science in the title, don’t worry: It's written for the general public. Neither is it a dry historical overview to cure the worst insomniac. Rather, it is a collection of 10 juicy stories about the fascinating lengths scientists have gone to prove themselves right, and more important, to prove others wrong. While giving us a little science review, it helps us understand the very human motivations that come into play within the process of scientific debate. I recommend it for those who enjoy crawling into the minds of other people and getting the “behind the scenes” story.

 

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