Popular science has become more enticing in some ways in recent years. Skilled story-telling, stylish writing, a shared sense of wonder and high intellectual excitement are all available in a bookstore near you.
So what are we to make of a book that deliberately ignores these enticements? I say deliberately, because physicist-turned-historian David Topper warns that he had no intention of offering one of those books that can be read "like a novel". He seems to feel that this precludes stopping to ponder an idea or contemplate a diagram. Not true, but never mind. Authors should write the books they want to write, and he has put together a book that depends heavily on diagrams and on detailed argument about their interpretation.
The diagrams are aids to recovering the thought processes of the scientists whose quirks he wishes to explore. Their quirks, displayed in a few cases in physics but mainly in astronomy, are there to establish the well-worn theme that science is a human endeavour, subject to error, misdirection, creative efforts to shore up hypotheses fated to collapse and, on occasion, being economical with the truth.
Among the great figures seen here ignoring anomalies, getting the right answer by the wrong reasoning, massaging data or even being plain deceitful in the heat of controversy are Einstein, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus and Newton. Some of the topics are central to their historical achievements, others more marginal.
The chapters are self-contained, and include treatments of Einstein's occasional forays into experiment, Galileo's observations of the motion of sunspots, Newton's analysis of colour and Kepler's heroic efforts to account for the planetary orbits by solid geometry. Probing these and other matters, Topper is always concerned to tease out the convictions that drove the science, and to put these in the context of his heroes' wider thinking about God and the universe. All are discussed in scholarly detail, with extensive use of their own writings and other original sources.
This use of history as an antidote to textbook accounts of science, in which already established knowledge appears cut and dried, always bears expanding. And Topper's cases, mainly based on his own work, are clearly the product of a lifetime's research and teaching. Although some of the episodes are well known, his close attention to detail reveals new angles. And there are numerous anecdotal asides on other matters that happen to interest him - and even a whole, brief, chapter on Galileo's influence on contemporary artists.
This is the kind of writer who is easily diverted on to a new topic but then has a really good look at it, and the book has a certain academic charm. But the non-technically minded reader does not have to delve very far - into the discussion of rival schemes to account for planetary motion in the 16th century, for example - to discover that this is not really a popular book.
Does that matter? Maybe not. Presumably neither author nor publisher are bothered by the somewhat limited appeal of the result (though the latter might at least consider recruiting a competent English-language proofreader). There are ample consolations here for the specialist, I'm sure, but it does give the whole volume a slightly old-fashioned air.
This is not a call for dumbing down. The author clearly loves this stuff, and his enthusiasm shines through. A reader who already shares that enthusiasm will get along fine with this book, but it is unlikely to appeal to those not already fascinated by astronomy or by the minutiae of the doings of scientists.
Jon Turney is a science writer and editor. He is writing The Rough Guide to the Future
Quirky Sides of Scientists: True Tales of Ingenuity and Error from Physics and Astronomy
By David R. Topper
Published 1 August 2007