Wars, women and discovery

Science - Eurekas and Euphorias

October 11, 2002

Martin Ince delights in the colourful lives behind some great science.

In the current golden age of popular-science publishing, there seem to be two principal types of book. The first, descended from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time , unpacks some mystery of the universe for a general audience. The second, which to judge from the bookshop shelves is now overtaking the first in popularity, is the offspring of Dava Sobel's Longitude . Here, people, rather than their discoveries, are the focus. Pioneering geologist William Smith, cartographer Gerardus Mercator and Dmitri Mendeleyev, with his periodic table of the elements, have all been subject to this treatment along with the discoverers of everything from porcelain to chemical dye.

These two books belong in the second category, and are very good examples of the "people" genre. John Gribbin's Science: A History is an expensively produced tome that begins in 1543 and does not let up until it reaches the Human Genome Project, completed in 2001. It is rich in biographical detail that would have once been regarded as rambling but is now rightly seen as adding to the story. In Eurekas and Euphorias , Walter Gratzer gives us 181 science anecdotes, instead of formal history, from the eras of Pythagoras and Archimedes to the modern day. We learn that there really are scientists as introverted and socially dysfunctional as their Hollywood stereotypes - the physicist Paul Dirac being a prime example. But scientists as a species are also capable of the full range of human behaviour, from meanness to heroism, including a great deal of humour.

Both books will be good sellers, with Gribbin's the favourite for the more serious reader. His tale begins in the year in which Vesalius published his De Humani Corporis Fabrica , the founding work of modern biology, and Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium , which removed the Earth from the centre of the universe. This was a heroic era of science - in both senses. At one stage, Copernicus commanded a Polish castle under siege from Teutonic knights, while Vesalius, though no soldier, found his anatomical labours much eased by a ready supply of freshly hanged corpses.

Gribbin tells his long story with gusto and a complete lack of formality. On various occasions he recounts some action of a distinguished scientist and adds: "This was a big mistake." Charles II's repression of religious dissent is introduced with the phrase: "Then it all went pear-shaped."

Newton is described accurately as "a nasty piece of work".

This approach allows Gribbin to cover a great deal of territory. Astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology are the main areas (especially astronomy, which takes up perhaps a quarter of the book). But there is a very good chapter on the earth sciences, covering climate change and continental drift, in which the Scotsman James Croll rightly gets credit normally attributed to Milutin Milankovitch for the discovery of long-term climatic cycles.

However, too little of the book is new. A good third is about Brits: the land of Newton, Hooke, Halley, Wren, Herschel, Darwin, Davy, Faraday and many others features strongly (and deservedly) in his account. But the lives and work of these canonical figures are very familiar.

Anyone reading Science: A History will come away knowing a great deal about the lives of scientists. For example, there are nine pages on the life of the man who was born in colonial America in 1753 as Benjamin Thompson and died as Count Rumford in 1814, followed by fewer than three pages on his discoveries, crucial to our understanding of heat and the motion of molecules and atoms. This may sound unbalanced, but nobody who starts reading Rumford's life will want to stop before the end. As well as fighting for the English in the American war of independence, he was military aide to the elector of Bavaria and later Bavarian ambassador in London, founder of the Royal Institution, probably a spy and certainly a major womaniser.

Gribbin is good, too, at establishing scientific priority. He points out that Thomas Digges, as well as popularising Copernicus's work in England, looked at the sky through a telescope long before Galileo. He writes well about the parallel development of the idea of evolution by natural selection in the minds of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Another strength is the book's emphasis on the connection between new technology and significant discoveries. Devices such as telescopes, microscopes, clocks, balances and thermometers permit quantitative experiments that can be replicated or falsified by others. Strangely, though, Gribbin fails to follow the connection into the modern era. Computers are barely mentioned. In the 1950s, they seem to have been employed to unravel the structure of the earth's core, but in this account computers have been little used since. Seekers after facts about Charles Babbage, Alan Turing or Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, should look elsewhere.

Gribbin's dislike for the computer pioneers extends to mathematicians too. Jean Fourier rates a mention since Fourier analysis is a widely used scientific tool, as does the development of calculus by Newton and Leibniz. But other mathematicians get short shrift - David Hilbert and Pierre de Fermat fail to make the cut. Another blind spot is psychology. The book contains plenty on the life sciences, but Freud, Jung and the rest are omitted. As Gribbin would put it, this is a big mistake.

There are also drawbacks in the book's bid to be as contemporary as possible. As it approaches the present day, the space devoted to events and personalities becomes compressed, either because the author was running out of time and space or because of the difficulty of assessing the importance of developments such as the Human Genome Project. Indeed, Gribbin does not pay enough attention to recent developments, even in areas in which he is expert. In cosmology, the subject of his penultimate chapter, he fails to mention inflation, a key concept, and its principal originator, Alan Guth. He misses completely the amazing way in which, during our lifetimes, the solar system has turned in our minds from a random array of rock, ice and dust into a group of objects whose origins and relationships are known in beautiful and satisfying detail. This means that the people behind the space age are also absent from the narrative. The story - from Wernher von Braun's rockets on London to US space probes to the outer solar system - is surely one that Gribbin would have told grippingly. The astounding discovery of planets in other solar systems also fails to get a mention.

These are considerable shortcomings, but the book will be enjoyed regardless of its omissions. It will provide many happy explorations of things that too few people know about. The life of Robert Recorde of Tenby, in Wales, is one example. He deserves a statue for inventing the plus, minus and equals signs. But like other scientists since, Recorde failed to make the most of his discovery. His mathematical skills were so underdeveloped that he died in a debtor's prison in 1558, a year after dreaming up the equals sign. It is also not well known that Newton had the terrifying experience of being summonsed by Judge Jeffreys, when he was on the hunt for nonconformists, of whom Newton was one when at Cambridge. Or that John Michell thought up black holes in 1783, two centuries before Hawking and others developed the idea properly. Moreover, Science: A History will leave you in no doubt that wars, revolutions and other upheavals affect scientists as they do the rest of us - not least Lavoisier, one of the discoverers of oxygen, who lost his head on the guillotine in the French revolution. And that many enjoy active, or even over-active, love lives. Rumford apart, Gribbin points to a long list of others, including Halley of comet fame, who took a long sea voyage with a previously infertile couple and was regarded as responsible for the infant who was born shortly afterwards.

Scientists in the raw, and to a major extent in their own words, are the material of Gratzer's book, a lighter concoction than Gribbin's and designed for shorter attention spans. For example, there is the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger who appears, Halley-like, "ever in the grip of a powerful priapic urge". Billed as a collection of anecdotes, this is a mixture of descriptions of famous moments in science and amazing or amusing incidents. Least interesting are those retold by Gratzer in the third person; most exciting are the more numerous ones told in the words of the participants.

Some are well known, including the Oxford debate of 1860 on evolution, led for the evolutionists by Thomas Huxley and for the Biblical literalists by the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. But most are less familiar, and Gratzer has worked hard to find tales from many centuries and all branches of science. A good example is Alfred Russel Wallace's £500 bet with a flat-earther, for which he had to prove the curvature of the earth's surface. It sounds simple, given a canal and a telescope, but Wallace was made to work for his money by many spurious objections.

Gratzer shows beyond doubt that scientists are not to be trifled with. A US senator, in the throes of an inquiry into nuclear weapons, asked the physicist Glenn Seaborg rhetorically what he of all people could know about plutonium? Seaborg replied that he had discovered the stuff. But even scientists should beware of bluffing, as the cautionary tale of Igor Tamm shows. In the early 1920s he was arrested by an anti-communist band in Ukraine and dragged up before their leader, a cartoon brigand with grenades on his belt and ribbons of machine-gun bullets across his chest. Tamm was denounced as a communist agitator, with death the punishment. He replied that, on the contrary, he was a professor. Of what? the brigand asked. Mathematics, he said. "All right," he was told, "if you are a mathematician, give me an estimate of the error one makes in cutting off McLaurin's series at the Nth term. Do this and you go free, fail and you die." Tamm managed the calculation, escaped the firing squad and later won the Nobel prize for physics. But he never found out how someone able to pose such a question from an arcane branch of mathematics was also the leader of a guerrilla band.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The THES .

Science: A History 1543-2001

Author - John Gribbin
ISBN - 0 7139 95 033
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 669

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