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

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

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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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