A century ago, Einstein and Freud revolutionized science—largely, argues science writer Panek, by looking for hidden causes behind the surface of their respective disciplines.
From the Renaissance through the 19th century, the author notes, the course of scientific advancement could be traced in terms of better instruments supplying new data. Galileo used the telescope to see new planets, Leeuwenhoek made similar use of the microscope to find unknown forms of life, and upon their observations, others like Newton and Darwin built new theoretical edifices. Panek (Seeing and Believing, 1998, etc.) portrays both Einstein and Freud as originally accepting the positivist dogma that direct observation, not speculative reasoning, was the hallmark of real science. But late-19th-century science was confronted by phenomena such as X-rays that could not be observed directly; no fine-tuning of earlier theory could accommodate them. Freud and Einstein were forced to postulate new entities, the unconscious mind and the curvature of space-time. While both men expected experimental results to validate their hypotheses and stood ready to revise their theories in the face of contradictory evidence, Panek credits their imaginative leaps beyond hard data with the creation of a new paradigm of how science works. A long final chapter asks how psychoanalysis fits the positivist model of science. To the argument that no experimental result can disprove Freud's theory of the mind, the author makes a slightly dodgy response: psychology remains an infant science, he contends; modern cosmology grew from equally speculative beginnings, and Freud made every attempt to tie his theories to specific case studies.
At times, Panek seems determined to force the two men’s careers into identical patterns, citing minor similarities as if they were proof of deep connections. Even so, the light he sheds on the historical context of their discoveries makes for fascinating reading.