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Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth
     

Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth

by James Powell
 

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Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists came to accept four counterintuitive yet fundamental facts about the Earth: deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and global warming. When first suggested, each proposition violated scientific orthodoxy and was quickly denounced as scientific—and sometimes religious—heresy. Nevertheless,

Overview

Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists came to accept four counterintuitive yet fundamental facts about the Earth: deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and global warming. When first suggested, each proposition violated scientific orthodoxy and was quickly denounced as scientific—and sometimes religious—heresy. Nevertheless, after decades of rejection, scientists came to accept each theory.

The stories behind these four discoveries reflect more than the fascinating push and pull of scientific work. They reveal the provocative nature of science and how it raises profound and sometimes uncomfortable truths as it advances. For example, counter to common sense, the Earth and the solar system are older than all of human existence; the interactions among the moving plates and the continents they carry account for nearly all of the Earth's surface features; and nearly every important feature of our solar system results from the chance collision of objects in space. Most surprising of all, we humans have altered the climate of an entire planet and now threaten the future of civilization. This absorbing scientific history is the only book to describe the evolution of these four ideas from heresy to truth, showing how science works in practice and how it inevitably corrects the mistakes of its practitioners. Scientists can be wrong, but they do not stay wrong. In the process, astonishing ideas are born, tested, and over time take root.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/05/2015
Powell (The Inquisition of Climate Science), executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, takes a historical look at four truths in the earth sciences and how these truths came to be accepted. While he gives equal weight to his treatments of the age of the earth, continental drift, meteorite impacts, and global warming, it is his goal to use the first three topics to help inform understanding of the fourth. With each subject in turn, Powell begins with first thoughts on the matter and then tracks opposed views until the mounting data in each case is able to "transform heresy into truth." Scientists come off as fallible and stubborn as anyone, and indeed Powell says that "in science, being wrong is inevitable and indispensable." But he makes it clear that the process of science eventually succeeds in producing the best explanation of available data. In the case of anthropogenic global warming, there is no dispute in the scientific community and, despite media claims, this is borne out by peer-reviewed articles (of which only one in a thousand claims that this is not the case). Powell concludes that Big Oil is doing exactly what Big Tobacco did in trying to obscure the truth for its own ends. (Jan.)
Skeptical Inquirer - David Morrison
This is first-rate story telling, with heroes, villians, and the often-unexpected discoveries that created revolutions in our concept of the planet.
Spencer Weart
James Lawrence Powell breaks new ground. His scholarship is deep, and his stories are well-written and enriched with human detail. Anyone with an interest in how science progresses will profit from reading this book.
Seth Stein
This clear and well-written book offers four classic examples that show how science progresses—despite tough opposition, generally accepted ideas are often slowly replaced by newer, better ones. As an apocryphal medical school dean told incoming students: 'Half of what we will teach you in the next four years is wrong. The problem is that we don't know which half.' James Lawrence Powell's new title provides a lively look at how the sciences, in this case the geosciences, really work.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780231164481
Publisher:
Columbia University Press
Publication date:
12/23/2014
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
1,352,399
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

James Lawrence Powell serves as executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, a partnership among government agencies and laboratories, industry, and higher education dedicated to increasing the number of American citizens with graduate degrees in the physical sciences and related engineering fields, emphasizing recruitment of a diverse applicant pool that includes women and minorities. He received his Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has taught at Oberlin College and served as its acting president. He has also been president of Franklin and Marshall College, Reed College, the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both appointed Powell to the National Science Board. He is also the author of The Inquisition of Climate Science.

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