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John Waller

Fabulous Science

Famous scientists often get a rather heroic image in later accounts of their work. In Fabulous science John Waller looks at the truth behind some of these stories. In the first part he looks at experiments such as Eddington's eclipse expedition to test general relativity, and shows that these weren't as conclusive as is often claimed. The second part looks at how history has treated various scientists - for instance Alexander Fleming, who is seen as the discoverer of Penicillin, despite not being the first person to notice it's effects nor being responsible for its development into a useful drug. Waller's examination of the details of such stories makes for an informative and enjoyable read.

Sometimes Waller goes to far in the other direction, and seems to be putting scientists up upon a pedestal merely to be able to knock them down again. However, this tendency decreases as the book goes on, (and Waller does much better in avoiding it in his later work Leaps in the dark).

Several of the chapters involve a religious element - with Waller showing that the science/religion divide is usually not as wide as the stories claim. He puts forward the idea that this divide was largely the result of a campaign in the second half of the nineteenth century by those who wanted to professionalize science by excluing amateurs such as clergymen.

Product Description
The great biologist Louis Pasteur suppressed 'awkward' data because it didn't support the case he was making. John Snow, the 'first epidemiologist' was doing nothing others had not done before. Gregor Mendel, the supposed 'founder of genetics' never grasped the fundamental principles of 'Mendelian' genetics. Joseph Lister's famously clean hospital wards were actually notorious dirty. And Einstein's general relativity was only 'confirmed' in 1919 because an eminent British scientist cooked his figures. These are just some of the revelations explored in this book. Drawing on current history of science scholarship, "Fabulous Science" shows that many of our greatest heroes of science were less than honest about their experimental data and not above using friends in high places to help get their ideas accepted. It also reveals that the alleged revolutionaries of the history of science were often nothing of the sort. Prodigiously able they may have been, but the epithet of the 'man before his time' usually obscures vital contributions made their unsung contemporaries and the intrinsic merits of ideas they overturned. These distortions of the historical record mostly arise from our tendency to read the present back into the past. But in many cases, scientists owe their immortality to a combination of astonishing effrontery and their skills as self-promoters.