Science secrets: book review

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!