How the great scientists reasoned: book review

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This is a splendid book, though frankly it does not entirely live up to its subtitle, “The scientific method in action.” What I learned most from it is that there is no scientific method, at least as it applies to startling new discoveries, and that those new discoveries are often made by people who are utterly single-minded in their dedication to their subject.

In Chapters 3-9, Gary Tibbetts outlines 7 discoveries made by his selection of great scientists. He discusses only their major discoveries, those which must have led to an Aha! moment. We learn, for example, that Columbus (a dubious choice, I thought) and Priestley were so wedded to their preconceptions that they could not give up their original theories, despite the mountain of evidence against them. (Priestley in effect left the discovery of oxygen to Lavoisier.) Planck similarly had trouble accepting the idea that quanta are real. The reality of atoms was not accepted at that time, the early 1900’s, until Einstein’s work on Brownian motion, which was far more extensive than I had realized.

Röntgen was lucky that other people who had accidentally fogged photographic film had not been as observant as he (some no doubt had an Ah shit! moment, according to Tibbetts), and Röntgen worked alone and in secret once he had discovered x-rays. The gregarious Bohr, by contrast, communed with Rutherford before going home and developing his early quantum theory. Bohr later led a generation of physicists as they developed the new quantum mechanics.

The chapter on Faraday shows him to have been perhaps the greatest experimental physicist since Galileo, but also serves as a warning not to extend your theories too far: Faraday’s attempt to unify gravitation and electromagnetism was fruitless and perhaps not entirely unlike Einstein’s attempt at a unified field theory.

The chapters in the book are written in a biographical format, but they are technical biographies, replete with technical details and equations. Physicists and other scientists will follow the equations, but those who cannot will still find a wealth of interesting detail.

I have until now omitted discussion of chapters 1, 2, and 10. These involve sort of a pro forma discussion of the scientific method and the principle of falsification. Neither of these concepts is related to the work of the scientists described in the bulk of the book; indeed, Tibbetts notes that “our scientists’ innovative thought processes were far from linear” – Bohr and Planck, for example, worked backward from the results they wanted. None of the scientists whose work Tibbetts outlines, it seems to me, used anything as cut and dried as a scientific method.

If any book ever deserved to be called a slim volume, this is it. The book is casebound and contains 148 pages, plus front matter. The list price is $75, but you can get it for approximately $50 on Amazon. The back cover contains the inscription, “Please note that print volumes do not include full-color or an index.” The lack of an index is a serious omission, but so is the omission of full color: Figure 8.8 is almost unintelligible in black and white (which is why I tell my students to make certain that a figure is crystal clear in black and white before adding color; I intend to add Figure 8.8 to my gallery of poorly prepared figures). Figure 5.4 cannot work as drawn; it needs a swivel. The graphs on page 111 are also poorly formatted: the axes should cross in the lower left corner of the graph, not at the point (0,0), where the data on the graphs obscure the axis labels (never trust Excel’s defaults!). Other figures are hard to understand or poorly explained.

Additionally, I will make the educated guess that the book was not read by a professional copyeditor. Planck, Priestley, Goeppert-Mayer are sometimes spelled wrong, SI symbols are used incorrectly, electronvolt is 1 word, and words like iodine and farad should not be capitalized. Figures 9.5 and 9.6 are very poor ways to display equations. For $50, we should have had full color, an index, and a copyeditor. I fear that we are witnessing if not the demise of the book, then at least the twilight of the codex.

Finally, why those 8 scientists? Partly, according to an interview with Tibbetts, because they were all born over 100 years ago and there was ample biographical and other material. I immediately wondered why he did not include the Curies, and indeed in the interview Tibbetts says that, had he added one more scientist, it would have been Marie Curie. He also ruled out Pasteur because of his own lack of expertise in biology.

I would further have nominated Lord Rayleigh, the greatest experimental physicist since Faraday or maybe Galileo. Among other things, Rayleigh wrote The Theory of Sound, codiscovered argon, explained Rayleigh scattering and the color of the sky, established the Rayleigh criterion for resolution of optical imaging devices, worked on color vision and photography, worked on hydrodynamic instabilities, derived the Rayleigh-Jeans law (which is important in the chapter on Planck), and developed standards for the volt, the ohm, and the ampere.

Bottom line, in case there is any doubt: I liked the book, but I am not so sure about the publisher.

10 Comments

Newton was also pretty good at the bench. And perhaps an even greater scientist than Columbus.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

Robert Byers said:

Tesla said he did x-raps before the rest. This actually makes a good point for origin subjects and scientific methodology ones. Science is only a high standard of investigation after the idea/hypothesis/hunch. It is not at all the origin for ideas. This error is made by everyone who documents about science and discoveries. science is a verb and not a noun. It doesn’t bring or stop good ideas. A scientist could be a effective scientists just by debinking others hypothesis by the scientific methodology. Likewise many discoveries were accidents. people call them scientific discoveries when in fact they are only brought uder investigation methodology before its settled they are a new thing. Evolutionary biology has forever been a hypothesis that was wrongly presented as a theory. This because its not understood what scienctific methodology is. Its a high standard of investigation that only then comand confidence in its conclusions. Today, very late, has finally evolution come under de-gree-d specialists more careful investigation, The ID folks.

The world sees science as the origin of important results in discovery’s and inventions yet its really human imagination/intelligence that is the origin and careful investigation(science) is only a legitimizing action.

Perhaps you should have that old head injury x-rapped by a de-gree-d specialist.

Pls do not feed the Byers troll.

Matt Young Wrote:

Figure 8.8 is almost unintelligible in black and white (which is why I tell my students to make certain that a figure is crystal clear in black and white before adding color;

Pardon the off-topic rant, but that brings up something that I find as obnoxious as the misrepresentation of evolution by “creationists.” That’s the instruction manuals for household products, especially those that require some assembly. As cheap as megapixel color photos are today, invariably all you get are B&W “stick drawings” with only the vaguest depiction of “what’s in front of what.” Between trying to focus these aging eyes on those drawings, sifting through pages of irrelevant verbiage, mostly non-English or endless paranoid safety warnings, I usually want to return the product before it’s out of the box.

Frank J said:

Matt Young Wrote:

Figure 8.8 is almost unintelligible in black and white (which is why I tell my students to make certain that a figure is crystal clear in black and white before adding color;

Pardon the off-topic rant, but that brings up something that I find as obnoxious as the misrepresentation of evolution by “creationists.” That’s the instruction manuals for household products, especially those that require some assembly. As cheap as megapixel color photos are today, invariably all you get are B&W “stick drawings” with only the vaguest depiction of “what’s in front of what.” Between trying to focus these aging eyes on those drawings, sifting through pages of irrelevant verbiage, mostly non-English or endless paranoid safety warnings, I usually want to return the product before it’s out of the box.

You mean like this?

I don’t know if this belongs here, but I can’t start threads and I thought this was well organized and presented. Disagreements welcome!

http://www.motherjones.com/politics[…]ny-evolution

Flint, Mooney’s article is interesting, but it’s a little distorted. While he does mention religion:

Group Morality and Tribalism. All of these cognitive factors seem to make evolution hard to grasp, even as they render religion (or creationist ideas) simpler and more natural to us. But beyond these cognitive factors, there are also emotional reasons why a lot of people don’t want to believe in evolution. When we see resistance to its teaching, after all, it is usually because a religious community fears that this body of science will undermine a belief system—in the US, usually fundamentalist Christianity—deemed to serve as the foundation for shared values and understanding. In other words, evolution is resisted because it is perceived as a threat to the group. __ So how appropriate that one current scientific theory about religion is that it exists (and, maybe, that it evolved) to bind groups together and keep them cohesive. In his recent book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that religions provide a shared set of beliefs and practices that, in effect, serve as social glue. “Gods and religions,” writes Haidt, “are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.” The upside is unity; the downside, Haidt continues, is “groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” Ideas and beliefs that threaten the group or the beliefs that hold it together—ideas like evolution—are bound to fare badly in this context.

it’s given roughly equal time with the other 6 reasons people reject evolution. Whereas, if you look country-by-country, it’s really the dominating factor.

Teve Tory said:

Flint, Mooney’s article is interesting, but it’s a little distorted. While he does mention religion:

it’s given roughly equal time with the other 6 reasons people reject evolution. Whereas, if you look country-by-country, it’s really the dominating factor.

I think this is because Mooney only had a single-level hierarchy in his list. I agree that social cohesion is an essential side-effect of religion, and that a shared set of values (and the associated beliefs and practices) is important and probably essential.

In my reading, the other reasons Mooney gives are not so much less important, as they are explanations of why gods are the vehicle of shared social value. If it were not for teleological thinking (which he points out we’re born with and most can never overcome it), we’d never have conjured up gods to hang values on. We’d have some other sort of glue.

Gould argued that evolution is rejected because it attacks not so much our beliefs as our ego. Evolution says humans are just another contingent, accidental, temporary species, in no way special, thrown off as a side-effect of a directionless, purposeless process. Swallowing that takes more humility than most people can muster.

What I think you may be missing is, why evolution? Surely there is a reason why rejecting evolution, rather than accepting it or something else real, is the social glue.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on December 21, 2013 5:18 PM.

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