Science Fictions


Philip Ball in Aeon:

Scientists can be notoriously dismissive of other disciplines, and one of the subjects that suffers most at their hands is history. That suggestion will surprise many scientists. ‘But we love history!’ they’ll cry. And indeed, there is no shortage of accounts from scientists of the triumphant intellectual accomplishments of Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Galileo, and so on. They name institutes and telescopes after these guys, making them almost secular saints of rationalism.

And that’s the problem. All too often, history becomes a rhetorical tool bent into a shape that serves science, or else a source of lively anecdote to spice up the introduction to a talk or a book. Oh, that Mendeleev and his dream of a periodic table, that Faraday forecasting a tax on electricity!

I don’t wish to dismiss the value of a bit of historical context. But it’s troubling that the love of a good story so often leads scientists to abandon the rigorous attitude to facts that they exhibit in their own work. Most worrisome of all is the way these tales from science history become shoehorned into a modern narrative — so that, say, the persecution of Galileo shows how religion is the enemy of scientific truth.

There’s no point getting too po-faced about the commandeering of Newton’s almost certainly apocryphal falling apple to represent science in the Paralympic opening ceremony. But what Newton’s definitive biographer Richard Westfall says about that story warns us how these populist fables can end up giving a distorted view of science. He says that it ‘vulgarises universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea. A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.’ Besides, how many of those munching apples at the ceremony could have explained why, if the moon is indeed just like an apple, the apple falls but the moon does not? Anecdote can anaesthetise thought rather than stimulate it.