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Under The Microscope

GREAT FEUDS IN SCIENCE, TEN OF THE LIVELIEST DISPUTES EVER, by Hal Hellman; John Wiley & Sons, 1998; 256pp; $39.95

Reviewed by Andy Reisinger

Progress in science is often achieved as a result of furious contests between proponents of opposing theories, rather than the gathering of piecemeal evidence. This is the basic message US science writer Hal Hellman gives in his latest book, Great Feuds in Science, where he chronicles ten of the biggest battles ever fought in the history of science.

His case studies include the 17th-century fight of Galileo against Pope Urban VIII regarding the correct description of the solar system; the dispute between Darwin and the Christian establishment about the origin of biological species; and more recent debates such as that between Derek Freeman and Margaret Mead about the balance between nature and nurture in social systems. Each dispute represents a major stepping stone in the scientific understanding of our world. Each of these advancements is characterised not only by a major clash of ideas, but also by strong differences in the personalities which championed the different sides.

Hellman gives well researched and readable introductions to the scientific ways of thinking at the time. He also attempts to sketch the leading characters in their social environments. This perspective brings alive such historical giants as Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Darwin and Lord Kelvin, turning them into human beings with their own personal backgrounds, dreams, and limitations. Thus dry science history turns into entertaining reading without sacrificing historical correctness. Along the way, one learns a good deal about the social and political climate in which some classical ideas of modern science were born. One also begins to understand why theories which today form cornerstones of our understanding were once declared utter rubbish.

Sometimes Hellman seems to overstate the importance of individuals, as if it was pure bloody-mindedness which led some scientists to insist on their point of view. While personal agendas may be of major importance occasionally, they certainly only form part of their motivations. Different theories judge evidence by different standards, and what is a plausible conclusion under a new theory may indeed appear nonsensical under the preceeding one.

Nonetheless, Hellman's book is a very worthwhile introduction to the often dry and difficult topic of science history. Scientific progress often emerges from an exciting battle of ideas and personalities, and through their description he succeeds in involving the reader in events which have shaped the modern scientific view of the world.

Andy Reisinger is with NIWA in Wellington