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Einstein's Luck: The Truth Behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries
     

Einstein's Luck: The Truth Behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries

by John Waller
 

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As John Waller shows in Einstein's Luck, many of our greatest scientists were less than honest about their experimental data. Some were not above using friends in high places to help get their ideas accepted. And some owe their immortality not to any unique discovery but to a combination of astonishing effrontery and their skills as self-promoters.
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Overview

As John Waller shows in Einstein's Luck, many of our greatest scientists were less than honest about their experimental data. Some were not above using friends in high places to help get their ideas accepted. And some owe their immortality not to any unique discovery but to a combination of astonishing effrontery and their skills as self-promoters.
Here is a catalog of myths debunked and icons shattered. We discover that Louis Pasteur was not above suppressing "awkward" data when it didn't support the case he was making. We also learn that Arthur Eddington's famous experiment that "proved" Einstein's theory of relativity was fudged And while it is true that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by lucky accident, he played almost no role in the years of effort to convert penicillin into a usable drug. Einstein's Luck restores to science its complex personalities, bitter rivalries, and intense human dramas which until recently have been hidden behind myths and misconceptions. This richly entertaining book will transform the way we think about science and scientists.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this iconoclastic survey of some of science's most notable discoveries, Waller (The Discovery of the Germ) strives to show that scientific research is less rational and more haphazard than we believe. He argues that our expectations of science are better served when we acknowledge that it is like any other human endeavor, populated by real people and subject to many extraneous influences, including luck. That scientists are sometimes ambitious and have rivalries, opinions, and even personal lives should not be surprising. Unfortunately, too often the public perceives scientists as immune from human frailties. Among the scientists Waller profiles are Louis Pasteur, who suppressed data that didn't support his theories, and Joseph Lister, whose supposedly sanitary hospital wards were actually filthy. However, readers will be disappointed by the lack of details regarding Albert Einstein's work, which, the title notwithstanding, had nothing to do with luck. There are, in fact, only five references to Einstein in the index, and on four of the pages referenced he is listed only as one of several prominent scientists. The 14-page chapter reputedly discussing "Einstein's luck" actually refers to the controversy surrounding Sir Arthur Eddington's famous 1919 solar eclipse observations, which are often credited as proof for the theory of relativity. Aside from the misleading title, this book is well written and well argued. Fans of Howard Zinn and other iconoclastic historians will enjoy. For larger science history collections.-James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An iconoclastic, decidedly revisionist look at the hit-or-miss business of science. Forget everything you know about snakes swallowing their own tails and the burning of blue, gemlike flames. All too often, writes Waller (History of Medicine/University College, London; The Discovery of the Germ, not reviewed), science evolves despite the institution of science, in which the race goes not to the most elegant solution but to the fellow with the biggest research grant and the most political power. Waller merrily revisits several famous moments in science, among them Pasteur's elucidation of germ theory, Robert Millikan's divination of the electron, and Einstein's development of relativity theory. In this account, none happened quite the way the textbooks tell us they did. Pasteur, for instance, fudged results, stole his assistants' ideas and passed them off as his own, refused to replicate results, and "suppressed a considerable amount of negative data" along the way to pasteurization; moreover, he could never quite reconcile his reactionary political and religious beliefs to what his experiments told him about the invisible world. Millikan essentially blundered his way to finding the electron, beset by the ever-shifting value of e and glad to overlook inconsistencies in the data; "had he not been judged correct in the long run," Waller harrumphs, "it's likely that modern commentators would invoke his story as a homiletic warning against reasoning from weakly attested theories." As for Einstein: suffice it to say that Arthur Eddington's astrophysical proofs of general relativity were a lucky hit for all concerned. Waller's interest lies more in the telling anecdote than the overarchingmoral, but he does a good job overall of showing the role of accident-and referees willing to look the other way-in the everyday work of scientists, whether conducted in Dr. Lister's filthy operating theater or in the most gleaming of labs. An informal, often entertaining excursion in the history of science.
From the Publisher
"John Waller takes several of our treasured and carefully nurtured illusions about the nature of science and scientists, and systematically uses history to shatter them. Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, John Snow, Gregor Mendel—even Charles Darwin—will never be quite the same again." —Nature

"An iconoclastic, decidedly revisionist look at the hit-or-miss business of science. Forget everything you know about snakes swallowing their own tails and the burning of blue, gemlike flames. All too often, writes Waller, science evolves despite the institution of science, in which the race goes not to the most elegant solution but to the fellow with the biggest research grant and the most political power.... Waller's interest lies more in the telling anecdote than in the overarching moral, but he does a good job overall of showing the role of accident—and referees willing to look the other way—in the everyday work of scientists.... An informal, often entertaining excursion in the history of science."—Kirkus Reviews

"Waller writes with clarity and flair...has a real talent for telling a story."—Roy Porter

"A valuable look sideways at the rolling juggernaut of modern science."—Martin Ince, New Scientist

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780192805676
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
03/28/2004
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
7.70(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

John Waller is Research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. He has taught at Harvard, Oxford, and London universities. He is the author of The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years that Transformed our Understanding of Disease.

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