Science secrets: book review

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The subtitle of this book by historian Alberto Martinez is, “The truth about Darwin’s finches, Einstein’s wife, and other myths,” and if you read it you will learn that

Ptolemy’s model was not especially complex, and Copernicus’s model used epicycles.

Newton may have been inspired by an apple, but the relics multiplied like the crown of thorns.

No one except J. K. Rowling never made money on the philosopher’s stone.

Coulomb may or may not have fudged his data.

J. J. Thompson did not exactly discover the electron.

Mileva did not coauthor papers with Albert.

Einstein was not influenced by a clock tower.

And of course

Darwin was not inspired to think of evolution when he saw the finches (or anything else) in the Galápagos.

You knew all those facts? Does not matter; read the book anyway! You will learn many surprising and interesting details, as well as various other myths. The book is well written and well illustrated, with most if not all of the original illustrations drawn by the author.

That is not to say the book is completely without flaws. No halfway decent reviewer likes every word of everything he has ever read; why there are even parts of Shakespeare or the Bible that I am not too fond of. Minor quibbles first: the book, like a great many books I read nowadays, appears to have lacked a competent copy editor: Priestley was sometimes spelled incorrectly, and some sentences were run-on, for example. The index looks complete, but I could not find an entry for finch, even though the finches figure prominently in the story about Darwin. Additionally, an expression like 1/2mv2 is poor typography: does it mean (1/2)mv2 or 1/(2mv2)? Finally, sometimes, as in the story of the philosopher’s stone, I had trouble figuring out where we were going (for which I blame the modern journalistic practice of not starting an article with its topic).

More importantly, the description of Roemer’s calculation of the speed of light is either unclear or incorrect. Additionally, I was surprised at the inference that physicists – in Fizeau’s time, 1849? – suspected that the speed of light might be independent of the motion of the source and would have liked more explanation. Indeed, I am not completely clear what the myth about the speed of light is, unless it is that all measurements are in reality round-trip measurements. And, finally, I thought that the myth of eugenics was no real myth, at least not any more, and it seemed out of place.

Quibbles, as I said. Read the book!

12 Comments

Have not read the book. Darwin was already thinking over evolution before he got to the Galapagos, having been influenced especially by modern and fossil forms in South America. So the Galapagos must have inspired him to more thoughts, though not to his first thoughts of evolution. Even if the finches were not for him a major issue.

IIRC, Darwin didn’t even know anything was odd about the finches until years later when they were examined in London by an ornithologist. Darwin though they were all different kinds of birds and was surprised to learn that they were all finches.

So, the finches IN THE GALAPAGOS didn’t inspire him, but I’m sure he became very interested when we learned that they were all finches and that his notions could actually explain why all these finches looked very different.

ogremkv said:

So, the finches IN THE GALAPAGOS didn’t inspire him, but I’m sure he became very interested when we learned that they were all finches and that his notions could actually explain why all these finches looked very different.

… by which time he had already thought a lot about the differences between island species of other Galapagos creatures, and also South American present and fossil forms.

Copernicus’s model used epicycles.

Why else would we care about Kepler?

Glen Davidson

I don’t suppose it will hurt to add some more myths:

  • Soon after Darwin’s Origin of Species, natural selection became the standard explanation of biological adaptations
  • Lamarck introduced the idea of inheritance of acquired characters
  • Owen and Cuvier argued for the immutability of species

We can keep doing this until others point out that some of the “myths” are true. I think these aren’t, but …

That Darwin was a tool of Satan and Hitler’s inspiration is not a myth, I take it.

Unless he just stuck with myths that sensible people tell…

Glen Davidson

If I recall, it was the tortoises and mockingbirds that impressed Darwin. And while they didn’t get him started thinking about evolution, they contributed to the momentum.

Not entirely on topic but maybe this will turn some people on to TDB -

http://www.gocomics.com/tomthedancingbug#.Uv5kaWJdWaw

harold said:

Not entirely on topic but maybe this will turn some people on to TDB -

http://www.gocomics.com/tomthedancingbug#.Uv5kaWJdWaw

Sometimes I really with PT had a “Like” button …

Additionally, I was surprised at the inference that physicists – in Fizeau’s time, 1849? – suspected that the speed of light might be independent of the motion of the source and would have liked more explanation.

This should not be surprising at all. It was also suspected that the speed of sound waves was independent of the motion of the source. The big surprise occurred when Michelson and Morley came up with a null result in attempting to determine the absolute motion of the earth in the cosmos.

Ptolemy’s model was not especially complex, and Copernicus’s model used epicycles.

When first proposed, Ptolemy’s model wasn’t especially complex. However, as the quality of the observations increased, the model required epicycles on the epicycles and finally epicycles on the epicycles on the epicycles, which was quite complex.

Joe Felsenstein said:

I don’t suppose it will hurt to add some more myths:

  • Owen and Cuvier argued for the immutability of species

We can keep doing this until others point out that some of the “myths” are true. I think these aren’t, but …

Oops, I’m probably wrong about Cuvier, Owen and species immutability.

[Byers] see Lots of stuf scientists think is wrong so the stuf i think is rite. Especialy about origins. [/Byers]

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on February 13, 2014 3:40 PM.

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