Top banner


Fights to Remember

Thomas Isenhour

Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. Hal Hellman. 240 pp. John Wiley and Sons, 1998. $24.95.

Before the students of Oxford, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked the celebrated agnostic scientist Thomas Henry Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he was descended from an ape. Huxley replied: "As to the descent from a monkey, I should feel it no shame to have risen from such an origin. But I should feel it a shame to have sprung from one who prostituted the gifts of culture and of eloquence to the service of prejudice and of falsehood." The clergy roared their outrage, Darwin's supporters cheered and Lady Brewster fainted in shock.

In Great Feuds in Science, Hal Hellman gives an unusual insight into the development of science, mathematics and philosophy as he writes of classic disputes: Lord Kelvin versus the geologists and biologists on the age of the earth; Derek Freeman contradicting Margaret Mead on nature versus nurture; Newton and Leibniz fighting over who invented calculus; and others. Great Feuds in Science is not only well written and interesting, giving views of the lives and personalities of scientists that are often not complimentary, but also describes historically important debates in the search for objective truth.

Those who put great stock in Thomas Kuhn's paradigm-shift theory of science will find a much more complicated picture in Hellman's reports. For example, the quick acceptance of Mead's theory based on her research in Samoa, that the "natural behavior" described by many anthropologists was caused by culture, was at least partially because it was so pleasing to liberal thinkers in general. Freeman's 1983 book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, challenged not only Mead's conclusions but even her basic research and data collection and resulted in the Northeastern Anthropology Association voting to censure both Harvard University Press (Freeman's publisher) and The New York Times, which ran articles on Freeman's revelations.

Anyone who believes that science and the reputations of scientists advance only on the basis of clever experiments or cold, convincing theories would be well served to learn that Newton actually never published his calculus but was obsessed in his later life with proving he was the sole author, or that Lord Kelvin, for all his great contributions to science including the discovery of absolute zero, refused to believe in radioactivity when its discovery provided a mechanism for an earth that could have cooled slowly enough for biological evolution and geological uniformatarianism to have occurred. Even the greatest thinkers can be petty and subjective. Voltaire was famous for destroying his opponents with ridicule rather than logic.

I was excited by this book and enthusiastically recommend it to general as well as scientific audiences. In fact, I ordered two copies as presents for good friends. I hope that Hellman writes a sequel. I would love to read equally well-researched stories about Einstein versus the German scientific establishment, the chemical industries' attack on Rachel Carson after the publication of Silent Spring, and the debate between the expanding-universe theorists such as Gamow and Hubble and the steady-state group led by Fred Hoyle. Even the Einstein-Bohr debate over determinism versus quantum theory might enjoy a new look, and it would be especially interesting to compare the Luis Alvarez and John Bakker theories of the demise of the dinosaurs.—Thomas L. Isenhour, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner