Review of ‘Great Feuds in Science and Portraits of Discovery’

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Great Feuds in Science
Hal Hellman (Wiley)

Portraits of Discovery
George Greenstein (Knopf)

Science, in the abstract, sets itself apart from the humanities, as an impartial, analytical and objective pursuit of real knowledge, which it likes to call truth. The pure scientist is cloistered in a laboratory, or wanders forth into the world armed with instruments of precise observation and measurement. Freed from the illusions of art, the conflicting memories of history, the uncertain leaps of literary imagination, the hard analytical mind of science tells us the way things really are. In his Portraits of Discovery, astronomer George Greenstein quotes the early German physicist Ludwig Boltzmann to this effect: "The stars bend like slaves, to laws not decreed for them by human intelligence, but gleaned from them."

What makes both Greenstein's Portraits and science writer Hal Hellman's Great Feuds in Science so delightful is the way in which they give us science, not in the abstract but in the flesh. In doing so, they show us science following what the novelist Samuel Butler called "the way of all flesh." There is, of course, a great difference between a novel and a scientific paper. But science grew out of the humanities; it was originally known as natural philosophy. And it is, like other branches of the humanities, a pursuit subject to error, emotion, ego, indeed all the flaws that make us human.

Hellman's focus on the great feuds, from Galileo's clash with the pope to the still smoldering attack by Derek Freeman on Margaret Mead, is more than a retelling of familiar stories. He is a thoughtful writer, and has done his own research, looking for what drove his protagonists into combat — for deeper meanings. In Hellman's pages we find both the hurled invectives and what lies at the heart of these disputes.

For example, when Newton and Leibniz, giants of 18th-century physics, battled over who had invented "the calculus" first, there were deeper issues at stake. Newton's universe ran according to precise laws, as mechanical as clockwork, fixed in space and time, while Leibniz was imagining a world of relativity, not realized until Einstein. Yet such lofty differences were hardly a factor in why a committee of the British Royal Society gave priority on the calculus to Newton. The reason for this: although Leibniz was a member, Newton was head of the society and stacked the committee with his supporters.

Darwin's publication of his theory of evolution in 1860 provoked a feud that still stirs passions. "I am sharpening my claws and beak in readiness," the biologist T. H. Huxley told Darwin just before publication. When Huxley met the famed cleric Bishop Wilberforce in debate at Oxford soon after, the bishop asked the biologist whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey. "I should feel it no shame to have risen from such an origin," Huxley shot back. "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."

Such barbs and retorts are hardly a thing of the past, as Hellman shows in his account of the Derek Freeman-Margaret Mead controversy, whose dust has hardly settled. Hellman offers a balanced account of Freeman's attempt to debunk Mead's characterization of the culture of adolescence in Samoa. But he notes how one scientist may gain prominence "on the back of [another's] fame."

In Portraits of Discovery, George Greenstein writes with an insider's feeling for contemporary science and its great minds. But he is fascinated by the complexity of people as well as the beauty of ideas, and gives us his subjects warts-and-all. Here we find George Gamow, who leaps from nuclear physics to cosmology to the genetic code, delighting his friends with magic tricks and Russian poetry, and drinking himself to death.

Or physicist Richard Feynman, who blazed a new trail into the mysteries of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism, even as he proceeded to seduce the wives of colleagues, friends and graduate students whose careers depended on him. Feynman liked to say, "I'm a one-dimensional sort of guy." And Greenstein illustrates this with Feynman's reaction to witnessing the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert: he was puzzled by the mushroom cloud and began trying to figure out what had caused it. In contrast, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the project to develop the bomb, was thinking of a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

Or Luis Alvarez, who helped develop radar and the atom bomb in World War II, and later, with his son Walter, put forth the theory that an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, but who is equally remembered for participating in the postwar congressional witch-hunt that destroyed Robert Oppenheimer's career.

Woven into these profiles are Greenstein's reflections on the way science is changing — big science now involves teams of collaborators (a recent physics paper was published with 365 authors), as leading scientists become administrators who resemble corporate CEOs. He also muses on the way science remains unchanging — in its discrimination against women. Only 3 percent of physicists in the United States are women, ten times less than in Italy or Turkey. The use of the telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California was restricted to male astronomers until the mid-1960s.

In one respect, Hellman's and Greenstein's stories have a common thread: the resistance to new ideas or observations. "The ideas of one's field," Greenstein says, "won at such great cost of time and effort, won by untold numbers of workers — these are precious. The sense arises that they are one's own property, zealously to be guarded against outside depredations. Science, in fact, is a community, and like all communities, scientists have a tendency to close ranks against outsiders."

Both of these books try to humanize science, but in the end neither contemplates why science stands apart from the humanities, or what is lost in the separation. There is only a hint of this in Greenstein's confession, offering his reasons for scientific work: "Science is worth doing because it teaches us something of the true scheme of nature, and of our place in that scheme. It teaches us our address in the universe. These are enough for me. They are enough for most scientists. I have yet to meet a one who works for the good of humanity."

Reviewer Paul Trachtman is a writer who is based in New Mexico.


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