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

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The great biologist Louis Pasteur suppressed "awkward" data because it didn't support the case he was making. Joseph Lister's famously clean hospital wards were actually notoriously dirty. And Einstein's theory of general relativity was only "confirmed" in 1919 because an eminent British scientist massaged his figures. Drawing on the latest scholarship, John Waller shows that many of our greatest heroes of science were less than honest about their experimental data, and not above using friends in high places to ...
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Overview

The great biologist Louis Pasteur suppressed "awkward" data because it didn't support the case he was making. Joseph Lister's famously clean hospital wards were actually notoriously dirty. And Einstein's theory of general relativity was only "confirmed" in 1919 because an eminent British scientist massaged his figures. Drawing on the latest scholarship, John Waller shows that many of our greatest heroes of science were less than honest about their experimental data, and not above using friends in high places to help get their ideas accepted. He reveals how sheer effrontery and self-promotion propelled certain scientists to the fore, obscuring the vital contributions of others and the intrinsic merit of the ideas they overturned. Einstein's Luck is an enthralling and entertaining book, which resurrects the complex personalities, bitter rivalries, and intense human dramas that enliven and illuminate the history of science.
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Editorial Reviews

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

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780198607199
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/28/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.10 (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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Table of Contents

List of illustrations viii
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: What is history for? 1
Part 1 Right for the wrong reasons 10
1 The pasteurization of spontaneous generation 14
2 'The battle over the electron' 32
3 The eclipse of Isaac Newton: Arthur Eddington's 'proof' of general relativity 48
4 Very unscientific management 64
5 The Hawthorne studies: finding what you are looking for 78
Conclusion to Part 1: Sins against science? 99
Part 2 Telling science as it was 108
6 Myth in the time of cholera 114
7 'The Priest who held the key': Gregor Mendel and the ratios of fact and fiction 132
8 Was Joseph Lister Mr Clean? 160
9 The Origin of Species by means of use-inheritance 176
10 'A is for ape, B is for Bible': science, religion, and melodrama 204
11 Painting yourself into a corner: Charles Best and the discovery of insulin 222
12 Alexander Fleming's dirty dishes 246
13 'A decoy of Satan' 268
Conclusion to Part 2: Sins against history? 284
Notes on sources 296
Index 302
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