Manual Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever

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Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever - Hal Hellman - Google книги

Montagnier AIDS. One tends to think of feuds as long, drawn-out affairs with elements of revenge, personal honor, and the like, usually between two fairly equal opposing camps. The Montagues and the Capulets immediately come to mind, or, in the real world back home, the Hatfields and the McCoys. Many of the stories in this book, well told and in an engaging manner, really do not fit this mold.

For example, the chemist Pasteur had no real feuding partner, unless you want to nominate most of the French medical establishment and the entire country of Germany or Prussia, if you prefer. In the case of Freud, given the distaste of Viennese society and much of the world in general at first, for the psychoanalytic movement, the most notable instances of opposition involved defections of former acolytes.

This might well be looked upon as attempted patricide rather than the actions of feuding adversaries.

Ten of the Liveliest Debates Ever

Hellman, on the basis of the extensive bibliography included, has read widely and well on the controversies he covers. He also provides an excellent set of notes in reference to the statements made in the body of the book. However, he is neither a physician nor a biological scientist, and at times this shows.

It will come as no surprise to those who have read widely in the history of mathematics to learn that disagreements between mathematicians on matters of priority, philosophy, and the acceptability of new ideas can get every bit as nasty as similar spats in other fields. It will come as even less of a surprise to discover that the average layperson, however well educated, thinks of mathematics as the least likely place in which to find such immature goings-on. Hal Hellman, the author of a series of books on famous feuds in technology, science, and medicine, admits in the introduction to Great Feuds in Mathematics that he originally scoffed at the notion of doing a book on mathematical misunderstandings; after all, mathematics is supposedly "a cold, logical discipline where questions can be decided, if not quickly, [then] at least objectively and decisively.

Great Feuds could almost be considered two narratives in one. The first four feuds and they really are feuds, in the sense that personal animosity and jealousy played as significant a role as disagreement over content cover familiar ground: the cubic and calculus priority disputes, Descartes' several quarrels with Fermat, Jakob and Johann Bernoulli's general crankiness and inability to deal with one another. Hellman does a good job of highlighting the highs and mostly lows of these affairs, but the overall narrative lacks a clear throughline, despite the author's repeated attempts to indicate how mathematics as a whole benefited from each disagreement.

The latter discussions are somewhat hampered by the unfortunate fact that Hellman is not what one would call a profound mathematical thinker. He does his best with the limited tools at his disposal, but those with some knowledge of the situation will probably be disappointed in the overall quality of his summary statements. Starting with the in truth, rather decorous difference of opinion between J. Sylvester and T. Hellman quotes all parties at some length, and, while one could have asked for a bit more authorial "mortar" between the "bricks" of offset quotations, this reader appreciated the decision to let the combatants speak for themselves.

Being a biochemist before I went into medicine, the story I liked best was that of Claude Bernard, the pioneer of physiology.

His careful experiments and analyses established the basis on which our understanding of the chemistry of the body is founded. He was the first person successfully to carry out cardiac catheterization and maintain structures alive outside the body by organ perfusion. But in his day, the anti-vivisection campaigners had a very similar approach to that of the animal rights movement of the present.

The culture of the 19th century was in favour of experimentation on chemical and physical matters, but opposed to experimentation on living things and particularly anything related to human life.

Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever

His work was opposed by the medical establishment who believed that it was beneath their dignity to dirty their hands with contact with the tissues that they sought to heal. The chemistry research community was also vehemently against the findings of his analyses.

They would not believe living things could be chemically based, because they thought that body materials should therefore be synthesizable outside the body. This book is very well researched and lists references for all material used. My only regret is that the examples are mainly laboratory research based.


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The story of Semmelweiss and childbed fever is the only clinical controversy covered. The lessons apparent from this treatise are that feuds often cannot be settled with a purely rational, scientific approach.

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There may not be sufficient understanding of the field of research. External factors such as religion, nationality and social status may be involved. Personal factors such as pride, greed and ambition may be playing a role. Awareness of all these influences is important if we are not to share the fate which befell most of this sample of subjects, of dying bitter and broken, often after suffering from emotional illness for many years. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.