Einstein's Luck: The Truth behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries

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9780198607199: Einstein's Luck: The Truth behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries

As John Waller shows in Einstein's Luck, many of our greatest scientists were less than honest about their experimental data. Some were not above using friends in high places to help get their ideas accepted. And some owe their immortality not to any unique discovery but to a combination of astonishing effrontery and their skills as self-promoters.
Here is a catalog of myths debunked and icons shattered. We discover that Louis Pasteur was not above suppressing "awkward" data when it didn't support the case he was making. Joseph Lister, hailed as the father of modern surgery because he advocated sanitary conditions, was just one of many physicians who advocated cleaner hospitals--and in fact, Lister's operating room and hospital was far more unsanitary than most. We also learn that Arthur Eddington's famous experiment that "proved" Einstein's theory of relativity was fudged (Eddington threw out two-thirds of his data, 16 photographic plates that seemed to support Newton over Einstein). And while it is true that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by lucky accident, he played almost no role in the years of effort to convert penicillin into a usable drug. But once the miracle drug was finally available, the press hailed him as the genius behind the drug, in part because his story made good copy and in part because war-torn Britain needed a hero (and the other researchers were not British).
Einstein's Luck restores to science its complex personalities, bitter rivalries, and intense human dramas which until recently have been hidden behind myths and misconceptions. This richly entertaining book will transform the way we think about science and scientists.

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About the Author:


John Waller is Research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. He has taught at Harvard, Oxford, and London universities. He is the author of The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years that Transformed our Understanding of Disease.

From The New England Journal of Medicine:

In The Act of Creation, which was written almost 40 years ago, Arthur Koestler argued convincingly that very few ideas in science ever prove to be truly original. When they are, the originators seem to be so far ahead of their time that their contemporaries are unable to understand their ideas. Good examples of such thinkers are Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. As Alexander Pope put it aptly in his epitaph for Newton, "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: / God said, Let Newton be! and all was light." Concepts that seem original almost always stem from earlier work. In this well-written and well-referenced book, John Waller acknowledges this point but takes another approach to acts of creation. Waller argues that those involved in such acts are sometimes right for the wrong reasons, or that history has not infrequently been distorted in order to create heroes. The first group of scientists -- those right for the wrong reasons -- includes Robert Millikan and the demonstration of the existence of electrons, Arthur S. Eddington and the proof of general relativity, and Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease. In each case the scientists had preconceived ideas, which they supported sometimes by means of obfuscation and deception and other times by manipulating their data or ignoring data that did not fit the ideas. Of course, if their ideas had been wrong, these scientists would have been ignored by posterity and long forgotten. Waller's second group includes scientists whose status was elevated only by subsequent developments. He argues that Gregor Mendel had not sought laws of inheritance as such. His main concern had been to study hybrids and how interbreeding might generate new forms. Charles Darwin had been confounded by the problem of how new species arose (there is no mention in the book of George Romanes's near-contemporary ideas on this subject) and was always bedeviled by Lamarckian ideas. The example of John Snow's removal of the handle of the Broad Street Pump in Soho in September 1854, whereby the incidence of cholera was decreased and the disease was shown to be a water-borne infection, was a case of oversimplification. And so was the case of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. Fleming certainly noted the antibacterial properties of Penicillium notatum but had no part in demonstrating its therapeutic value, which was done several years later by Howard Florey, Ernest Chain, and Norman Heatley. Waller in no way denigrates such achievements but, rather, emphasizes the need for historians to study original sources in order to analyze precisely the nature and details of a scientist's contribution. The same approach could apply to eponymous associations with diseases and signs and symptoms, but such associations have invariably been hallowed by tradition and are not considered in this book. Finally, Waller examines the complaint that nowadays there are no Newtons or Einsteins. He argues that the savagery of peer review tends to crush radical new ideas. Furthermore, the tremendous increase in modern scientific research reduces the possibility of finding new territories and allows researchers much less scope for that than there once was. But even in the past, timely, original, and radical ideas often were not recognized. I would argue that ideas with such qualities may well continue to be generated, albeit rarely, but still fail to be recognized by contemporary society. Only history will tell. Alan E.H. Emery, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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