A Tale of Seven Scientists is not the most accessible book I have ever read. It took quite a bit of effort, to be honest, to get into the weeds of atomic structures with seven scientists whose contributions to our understanding of the atom, the periodic table, and chemistry are often forgotten. The forgotten scientists are John Nicholson, Anton Van den Broek, Richard Abegg, Charles Bury, John Main Smith, Edmund Stoner and Charles Janet. In an odd coincidence, Nicholson is not that forgotten. I was describing this book to my best friend and she mentioned that her husband was currently reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb and that it discussed Nicholson and Niels Bohr. I suppose I need to add that book to my list, now.
The purpose of Scerri’s book is to argue against the current widely-accepted view of science as a series of revolutionary discoveries by the superstars of science, Darwin, Bohr, Einstein and the rest of the constellation of the greats, ignoring the lesser luminaries whose work contributes to and enables the breakthroughs that rise to historical recognition. He argues that science is more like a natural organism, constantly evolving. Some discoveries are like adaptations that don’t work out, but even if individually maladaptive, they lead to better discoveries that do survive.
This seems a reprise of Social History versus the Great Man Theory. This makes sense to me since history was my major and first great intellectual passion. In grassroots organizing, too, there is this frustration with the media narrative of social movements as the products of great men, rather than great men arising from the social movements. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not create the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement created the space for King to rise to the occasion.
This makes sense to me. It’s not like any of the stars of science came up with their ideas in a vacuum. Their working world has never been void of influence and information from other scientists who for one reason or another have been forgotten. However, a history of science that includes every contributory, but ultimately replaced, discovery would be overwhelming, confusing, and tedious. A history of scientific discovery where the people are erased and only their ideas are taught would lose the human interest angle and you know, that stuff is what sometimes helps draw people to the subject and then open their minds to the actual science.
I struggled with A Tale of Seven Scientists for a few reasons. First, my understanding of chemistry is weaker than any other science. I thought there was “THE” Periodic Table that just had new elements getting added every few years. I had no idea there were all sorts of periodic tables. That was fascinating, but a pretty stark reminder that chemistry is not my strong suit. To be honest, though, studying these theories and discoveries that turned out to be not quite right made me feel a bit nervous. My shelf of chemistry knowledge is pretty bare and here I am stocking it with all this stuff past the sell-by date. I have this idea that if I don’t know much about a discipline, it’s not the best idea to start stocking up my knowledge with displaced knowledge.
The other struggle I had with A Tale of Seven Scientists is that I don’t think his metaphor with biological evolution is the best one. Evolution is so random, when mutating, there’s not awareness that that Nicholson beak adaptation was close but no cigar, so let’s try this Bohr beak adaptation. Our genes are not self-aware in that way. Now, memetics, the theory of evolving cultural knowledge, that relies on awareness. That makes sense to me.
Scerri refers to his scientists as “missing links”, but in evolution there are no missing links. There are a lot of myths in popular understanding of evolution and missing links are one of them, a misunderstanding that ties to other misunderstandings of evolution that also argue against evolution as a metaphor for science. For one, evolution is not about progress. Evolution’s purpose is not and never was the creation of humanity or any one particular species. In fact, it’s off base to even speak of evolution having a purpose. It simply is. It’s purely random and we see it as purpose and progress because we think our existence is proof of progress but that’s just because we think we are the be-all and end-all. Silly us. The other bad idea about evolution is that only the strong survive. I would ask so where are the dinosaurs, but then…humans outwit, outplay, and outlast lions and tigers and bears, too. These myths of evolution seem to be fundamental to analogizing scientific discovery to evolution, but they are not really how evolution works.
The thing is, Scerri kind of has it both ways. He points out that evolution is random and that in some ways scientific discovery is random, but then he points to it as a form of progress as though evolution is about progress.
However, there are ways the Scerri’s metaphor works. For example, when scientists have contemporaneous discoveries, that’s sort of like convergent evolution where different critters have similar adaptations at the same time. It’s not some evolutionary flash mob, they are simply all responding to the same environment. In science, scientists have multiple discoveries, a form of convergent evolution and for the same reason. They are in the same environment, more or less, with the same salient issues and in the same zeitgeist. I think the zeitgeist has a lot of influence on human activity, what we are interested in, what we study, what we think about…and that brings us back to memetics, a much stronger metaphor than biological evolution.
Back to A Tale of Seven Scientists, obviously I am fascinated by his argument about how we should conceptualize scientific discovery. I am challenged by his suggestion that we should not even think in terms of right or wrong discoveries and concepts. This is exciting and fascinating stuff. The thing is, I really did not have to slog through all that science that has been displaced by more widely accepted science. I spent far too much effort on stuff that was simply not needed to make his argument. Scerri has enough authority to tell us that a bunch of scientists contributed to our ultimate understanding of atomic structures and the periodic table even through their work has been supplanted without having to get quite so detailed. It would make the book friendlier and less intimidating to lay readers like me.
Scerri also relies heavily on extensive quotes to explain and argue some of his points. So much that I was reminded. of my freshman seminar professor’s advice to always read my paper without any of the quotations before submitting it. He said if it does not makes sense without the quotes, rework it until it does. Quotes are to underscore, illuminate, and certify the argument, not to make the argument. I realized how important this is when reading Scerri’s book because by the end of the book, I was accustomed to his voice as a writer and could understand what he was saying, but then boom, there’s this long quote in another voice, often less clear and easy to understand. It was disruptive, breaking the momentum.
I realize that someone whose only science classes in college were Astronomy and Physical Science for NonScience Majors has a lot of nerve contradicting a science professor whose book is published by the sine qua non of authority, Oxford University Press, but since Scerri made the argument that nonscientists have contributed to scientific discovery, I hope he won’t mind too much.
I was provided a copy of A Tale of Seven Scientists by the author through his publisher.