Scientific feuds from Galileo to the Human Genome Project

Scientific feuds from Galileo to the Human Genome Project

Joel Levy

London, UK: New Holland 2010 | 224pp | ?17.99 (HB)

ISBN 9781847735140

Reviewed by John Anderson


It is well known that many fields of human progress have seen feuds and controversies, involving major protagonists, and do not feature people happily sharing results and bouncing ideas off each other. 

Such feuds have featured in the past in a series of books by Hal Hellmann - Great feuds in science  (1998), Great feuds in medicine  (2001) and Great feuds in mathematics (2006); and, by Patrick Coffey, Cathedrals of science: the personalities and rivalries that made modern chemistry, the last example featuring long-standing feuds surrounding the physical chemist Gilbert Lewis. 

Not all controversy is bad, of course, and although some of the personal feuds described in this book resulted in the demise of one or other party, some rivalries stimulated thinking and even accelerated progress in research. 

Scientific feuds  is split into sections dealing with: earth sciences (for example Kelvin vs Lyell, and Darwin vs Huxley over the age of the earth); evolution and palaeobiology (for example Leakey vs Johanson over the identity of hominid remains); biology and medicine (for example Franklin vs Wilkins during the race to unlock the secrets of DNA structure, and Venter vs the Human Genome Project); and finally physics, astronomy and maths (for example Tesla vs Edison over the war of the currents). 

Scientific feuds  is obviously intended for a mass market with its large print and colourful (though somewhat dated) design, but it does describe many of the major scientific controversies in history and outlines the cut and thrust of the disputed issues in illuminating detail. Together with good photographs, quotations from original sources, fact boxes and timelines, this book is both enjoyable and informative. 

To round it off, there are feature articles on a series of related topics, like science and the media, science and politics, science and the church, and wagers in science and fraud in science, illustrating the complexities of the environment in which scientists have to operate.