Leaps Without Faith

P.D. Smith reviews Leaps in the Dark: The Making of Scientific Reputations by John Waller, in The Guardian:

“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” says Galileo in Bertolt Brecht’s great play about the Italian physicist, and John Waller couldn’t agree more. In Fabulous Science (2002) Waller showed how science was a series of “powerful human dramas in which naked ambition has at least as big a role as technical virtuosity”. In his latest book he adopts an equally iconoclastic approach. Once again he takes aim at the heroes of science, firing a broadside at recent popular histories that follow a familiar formula: “The hero arrives at a new idea (Act I), suffers the wrath of jealousy, conservatism, and clerical bigotry (Act II), and is then triumphantly vindicated (Act III).”

According to Waller, scientific discovery is a “multi-participant event”, not a story of lone heroes. Another trusty cliché of popular science writing is the “eureka” moment. The falling apple that supposedly inspired the theory of gravitation was a myth. As Waller points out, the devious Newton probably used it as a ploy to avoid acknowledging any of his contemporaries. Such moments make a great story, but are bad history.

More here.