Have you ever noticed how science always seems to be presented as an unending march of progress? That's the way it always seemed to me when I was at school, in college and it was only in university that I began to grasp the idea that science was not always the peaceful, cooperative world it seemed to be. Come to think of it no one has ever told exactly why it is we rely on science and not religion to give us the answers ... of course, I know now but only because I've taken the trouble out. Scientists (and the work they do) tend to be presented to us as if they are gods but they are as human as we are... sure, they should be looked up to as the cream of our academic elite and as respected experts in their fields but they are not gods and being an expert in one field does not mean their opinions count in others or even that they are right on their own.
Essentially this, the humanity of scientists, is what Hal Hellman's book is about or rather that the examples he gives are set within that concept.
In essence what Mr Hellman's has done in "Great Feuds in Science" is detail 10 of the greatest scientific feuds, the most heated debates, that have ever occurred and he does so with style and in a form that is not only easy to read but is very hard to stop reading. Furthermore, as you read through the book you begin to realise that not only are these feuds an integral part of science they are actually essential to its progress ... if science was as progressive and serene as we are given to understand at school it would not progress with any speed if at all as it seems it is the scientist that says "that's funny ..." in reference to often established "fact" that progresses it and not those who shout "eureka" & making arguably non-controversial discoveries in areas not yet investigated (Asimov).
The book opens with Galileo's clash with Pope Urban VIII over his claim that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system but that it was just one of a number of bodies orbiting the sun and continues through Newton & Leibniz' sole claims to discovery of calculus (where, as one reviewer says, "the fur flies thickest") and the vicious duelling of the palaeontologists (or fossil hunters) Cope & Marsh right up to Wegener (continental drift) and the Leakey's missing link dispute with Johannson.
The book is an eye-opener but its real beauty is in Mr. Hellman's writing style, the research done to bring the project to completion and the consequent way in which he manages to bring the characters to life in the readers mind and show that scientists are not always motivated by the purest of intentions but by petty jealousies, rivalry, personal ambitions and religious doctrine. However one should not expect to read Hellman's book and find within descriptions of scientists engaged in barroom brawls or face to face abuse as he paints a picture of people far, far cleverer than that and, let's be honest here, sarcasm & abuse are best delivered by those of significant with & intelligence, for example, John Wallis' quite brilliant comments when he refers to Hobbes' attitude: "his arrogance which we know will vomit poisonous filth against us" ... very entertaining and I, for one, would not have liked to be on the receiving end of it. Not only is the book interesting from a personalities point of view but Hellman often deviates from the immediate subject at hand to give us informative reviews of the manner in which these debates affect us today and, in particular, tackling the issue of Behe vs. Darwinism and more besides.
Hellman's use of language is excellent and, whilst he did not get me interested, that honour belongs to my friend who so intuitively bought me the book knowing that I would like it, managed to keep me hooked over the time I was fortunate enough to have read it ... no mean feat considering I never seem to get enough sleep. Not only was his style lucid but the material was informative and I left the book feeling far better educated than I entered it. Though I concede it would have to be condensed this is the kind of book that could have brought my early science education to life and would have deterred students from the thought that remains with many, many people i.e. the science is infallible thus leaving the door wide open for idiot fundamentalists to exploit with their so-called "common sense" arguments.
Sometimes can be quite difficult to review, even bad books, as it can be hard to justify exactly why you dislike them ... well-written books are easier but books of this class are easy because it is such a pleasure to write about them. I sincerely look forward to reading & reviewing more of Mr Hellman's work.
The complete list of disputes covered in the book is as follows:
- Pope Urban VIII versus Galileo "An Unequal Contest"
- Wallis versus Hobbes "Squaring the Circle"
- Newton versus Leibniz "A Clash of Titans"
- Voltaire versus Needham "The Generation Controversy"
- Darwin's Bulldog versus Soapy Sam "Evolution Wars"
- Lord Kelvin versus Geologists and Biologists "The Age of the Earth"
- Cope versus Marsh "The Fossil Feud"
- Wegener versus Everybody "Continental Drift"
- Johanson versus the Leakeys "The Missing Link"
- Derek Freeman versus Margaret Mead "Nature versus Nurture"
Hal Hellman is a freelance popular science writer with works published in the New York Times & Omni amongst others ... he maintains his own website called "The Great Feuds Series".
Thanks for reading.
J. C. Rocks (aspiring author: "The Abyssal Void War" series)