To this day, teams of researchers are poring through photographs of Albert Einstein’s brain and its tissue samples to understand how they worked.
Eureka: Louis Pasteur in his study. AFP
But Cambridge University professor Patricia Fara in her new book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, argues that more than unique motor cortexes and rare neurons, it’s clever lobbying, political patronage, self-publicity, plain luck and the occasional lie that often decide which science theory becomes established fact or pseudo science.
It is an ambitious attempt at capturing how science has evolved over millennia, and unlike most books of this genre —which typically give a Eurocentric view of science, usually from Aristotle to Galileo, Newton and Einstein—Fara discusses contributions by Islamic and Chinese scholars in inventions such as complex magnetic compasses.
The Dark Ages, typically considered a blot in European history when art, literature and science took a back seat, was a flourishing period in China and the Arabic world. Scholars such as Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Sina, whose encyclopaedia on medicine was as important a contribution in the Arab world as Newton’s Principia Mathematica was to Europe, made scientific breakthroughs.
Rather than glorify the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, she accuses early historians of “selectively highlighting a few brilliant individuals”. Fara argues that unlike today, when science is applied mostly for practical means and commercial research, the period of Archimedes and Pythagoras required theories to be elegant, even if they didn’t always fit the facts; it was all right to compile the existing scientific knowledge of the time and pass it off as one’s own.
Ptolemy, an influential astronomer, claimed to have invented the armillary sphere (a mechanical system of interconnected rings to illustrate how the planets revolved) and Pythagoras bequeathed his name to a theorem, both of which were known to Babylonian scholars before them.
Though authorship and attribution are the modern-day scientist’s dearest preoccupations, Fara presents accounts from the past. About Louis Pasteur, who is credited as one of the founding fathers of microbiology, she says: “...An ambitious, intolerant man, Pasteur was notorious for appropriating his assistants’ results.”
Fara also cites examples of scientists who used data to validate preconceived ideas. Notable is the incident involving Einstein and Arthur Eddington, an influential Cambridge astronomer. Eddington conducted an experiment during an eclipse to validate Einstein’s results, and it was only after this that Einstein became the celebrity scientist—20 years after his seminal papers on relativity were published.
Do established scientists always give credit where it’s due? No, says Fara, and points fingers at Nobel laureates Francis Crick and James Watson, of DNA-double-helix fame. She says it was Rosalind Frank, who Watson described as a “..badly dressed woman, who refused to wear lipstick and had foolishly intruded into a man’s world..”, who first published photographs of the double helical structure of DNA. And then there’s the myth of scientists as rationalists that Fara shatters. Newton was obsessed with alchemy, and Ernest Rutherford advertised himself as a “modern day alchemist”.
This is a fat book, and though aimed at the general reader, certainly isn’t easy reading. Fara stays clear of jargon and trawls through a variety of sources to paint objective portraits of science luminaries. But since her language isn’t riveting, you need to be a serious science history enthusiast to enjoy the book.
And yes, a note to Oxford University Press: The tiny font size really doesn’t help.