How the great scientists reasoned: book review

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.