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John Waller

Leaps in the Dark

The picture of a lone scientist struggling to demonstrate an idea, often against a stupid and obstructive establishment makes a popular story, but how much truth is there in this image? In 'Leaps in the Dark' John Waller takes ten such stories and shows how they are often made up long after the fact. Now other authors might have done this in a way that was disparaging to the scientists or the science concerned, but Waller doesn't do this. Rather he shows that those concerned did deserve credit for their work but that truth is much more complex than told by the heroic stories. It's also an entertaining read, and is recommended for anyone who wants to see how science really progresses.

Thus we hear of Max von Pettenkofer, who thought that outbreaks of cholera depended on local soil conditions. His theory was actually more successful than the germ theory in predicting outbreaks, and what is more he was willing to drink a flask full of germs to prove his point - he didn't get cholera. Clearly the makings of a heroic story, but for one thing - hindsight proved him wrong. Thus Koch was presented as the hero, and Pettenkofer as an idiot who delayed the truth. Other stories tell of how the establishment resisted the obvious, such as Newton splitting white light, or the use of lemons against scurvy - but was it really so obvious? This book shows that more detailed research will often tell a different story, and it is well worth reading.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews