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Tales of the Bitter Rivalry That Fueled the Advancement of Science and Technology

by Michael White

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-380-97754-0
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

A solid account of some memorable squabbles reminds readers that scientists are as prone to turf wars and ego trips as any other mortals.

British author White, whose credits include biographies of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, begins with a quick overview of early scientific controversies, in particular the conflict between astronomers and the Catholic Church. He then examines eight particular rivalries. Newton, who quarreled with anyone who questioned his preeminence, saved his greatest venom for Leibnitz, who seems to have discovered calculus at almost the same time as his English rival. In the long run, Leibnitz’s clearer notation became the standard. The chemists Lavoisier and Priestly backed rival theories of combustion. Priestly actually discovered oxygen, but insisted on interpreting it in terms of the outmoded phlogiston theory. It was the Frenchman’s broader (and ultimately, correct) theories that led to the development of chemistry as an exact science. Similarly, Darwin’s opponents, most of whom opposed evolution on religious rather than scientific grounds, lost the argument mainly because their theoretical position was in effect a dead end for the biological sciences. Sometimes being right isn’t enough; Tesla won his argument (as hotly contested as any) with Edison over the choice between alternating and direct current for distribution of electricity, but his complete lack of worldly acumen made him a marginal figure. In modern times, White also looks at the races to build the nuclear bomb and to find the structure of DNA, as well as the ongoing commercial competition between Bill Gates and his rivals. In each case, he looks on the bright side, making the argument that competition spurs progress and forces the scientists involved to work at their best.

Sometimes clumsily written, but an interesting look at the human element in science.