Monday, 20 December 2004

Leaps in the Dark – John Waller ****

This is a very good book, which impressed me very much. I have to get this rather bland positive statement in up front, as otherwise I’d start with what sounds like a negative remark, and this isn’t a negative review. John Waller relishes shattering our illusions. He’s the sort of person who tells you that Robin Hood, if he ever existed at all, was an unpleasant murderer with B.O. Or that Richard III was really a good, well-meaning king, and all the stuff about hump backs and princes in the Tower was fictional propaganda put about by the Lancastrians to justify their coup.
The reason this sort of bubble bursting is painful is that we like our stories. We exist on stories – and the best popular science has a good story at its heart. But, and here’s where we fall into line with Waller, bearing in mind we are talking about science, we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm for a good story get in the way of the truth. Yes, let’s enjoy our history of science, and make it about real people, but not about mythical characters.
Waller points out the strong tendency to push scientists, just as much as any other character in history, into black and white, stark contrasts. So we have the bad guys, the fools, like Joseph Glanvill, the member of the Royal Society who tried to prove that witches existed scientifically, or Max von Pettenkofer, who was so convinced that cholera didn’t spread by pure bacterial infection that he swallowed a whole flask of the bacteria (and survived). Not to mention the good guys, the heroes like Isaac Newton with his stunning flash of genius in performing the experiment that showed white light was composed of a mix of the colours separated by a prism.
Reality, as you might guess, is rarely like that. Waller shows us how the much maligned Glanvill, for instance, was using the best scientific method of the day, even though he came up with the wrong result. And how Newton’s discovery was more a matter of him sticking to a theory despite experimental evidence, as it was only later that optical prisms could be made well enough to prove what he asserted.
It’s nothing new to hear that science mostly consists of small, incremental and often very shaky steps forward, and is sometimes helped along by mistakes – but Waller really hammers this home in a way that hasn’t been done before. at least for a general audience. It’s absolutely amazing, if a little chastening, to see some legends of science prove to be just that – legends. Waller’s book doesn’t mean there aren’t big steps forward in science, or works of genius, even from individuals like Newton, but it does mean that we can see them in a more realistic light.
Because this is such an important topic in understanding science and where it comes from, Leaps in the Dark is a highly recommended book. It mostly reads very well, too. It’s held back from five stars because it just occasionally suffers a little from academic pomposity, and in the end, the man’s a spoilsport. But a realistic spoilsport.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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