Ten of the Liveliest Debates Ever

by Hal Hellman

John Wiley & Sons



Great Feuds in Science
Cover by Josť Almaguer

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

While the popular and, perhaps, Platonic view of scientific advance is one of continuous movement towards a more complete understanding of the universe, the reality is much more convoluted. In his essay collection Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever, Hal Hellman attempts to write popular histories of "scientific" disagreements dating from Galileo's run-in with Pope Urban VIII in the seventeenth century to Derek Freeman's disagreement with Margaret Mead over sociology in the twentieth-century. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Hellman's collection does not work as well as one might wish.

There are several different types of debate described in the book. One of the more common types is a debate between a new scientific theory and the status quo. Most spectacular among these debates may be the opening discussion of Galileo vs. Urban VIII, actually the cosmology espoused by the Catholic Church. Another, equally religious, include Charles Darwin against the establishment, a fight which still occurs today.

More interesting than the arguments against the status quo are the direct conflicts between scientists, such as Isaac Newton's quarrel with Gottfried Leibniz over the priority for the invention of calculus or Othniel Marsh's long running argument with Edward Cope. These debates as often are caused by a clash of personality (as in both of those instances) rather than any ideological or dogmatic disagreement. The latter, perhaps more scientifically reasonable, disagreements are covered in such debates as Lord Kelvin's arguments on the age of the Earth or Alfred Wegener's theory on continental drift.

In summing up the ten disputes Hellman has chosen to spotlight, he frequently gives a broad outline for the debate without going into the specific details of what was said and done, and often he fails even to discuss the scientific principles which were under attack. For instance, while Hellman states that there is a difference between Newton's calculus and Leibniz's calculus, he doesn't explain what the difference is, except to state that Leibniz's notation is easier to use. In a few cases, Hellman does go into some detail, but frequently when he does, the detail is of a more esoteric depth than the layman, at whom this book is aimed, will be able to follow without the intermediate steps which Hellman does not include.

Perhaps more damning in a book which should have a broad range of interest is Hellman's inability to fully organize his essays. Presenting the ten essays in, more or less, chronological order is a good way of showing the evolution of science, letting the later essays build on the earlier essays, but Hellman's difficulties lie within each essay. He has a tendency to jump around when presenting each of his feuds. He'll begin at the end of the feud and then explain, in an awkward and roundabout manner, how the feud came to be. It leaves the reader more with an impression than any solid understanding of the personalities and issues involved.

The book ends with a brief epilogue which completely fails to tie up the ten essays which preceded it. Instead, the epilogue tells of a recent poll taken by the American Psychiatric Association in which the members voted that homosexuality is not a disease. Without presenting any of the evidence, however, Hellman's point, that scientific debate can be settled by resolution of a commission, comes across flawed, especially after he spent 200 pages explaining how the majority is not always correct.

Perhaps the most useful part of Hellman's collection comes at the end, after his ten essays are complete. Beyond his footnotes, he provides an extensive bibliography on the ten cases he presented, allowing the reader whose interest was sparked by Hellman's broad outlines, to delve more deeply into the individual disputes.

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