September 23, 2019

Acid Tongues & Tranquil Dreamers by Michael White.

A Science History Classic!

Nobody has egos like scientists. Behind the neat tidy history of modern science we teach today lies the messy secret stories of arguments, vendettas and snubs of both the victors and the vanquished.  Hey, you’d think that scientists would be enlightened souls, not fallible mortals prone to petty envy like the rest of us…

This week, we take a look at a science history classic entitled Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers; Eight Scientific Rivalries that changed the World by Michael White. Here you’ll read of tales both old and new of scientists “behaving badly” as they raced to out-think, out-publish and often out-slander each other in the press. The tale begins with the calculus-fueled battle between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz and continues right up through the cyber-wars of Bill Gates and Larry Ellison of today. It’s mentioned that Newton never failed to attend an execution of a counterfeiter caught during his tenure as Head of the London mint, a fact that speaks to his stoic demeanor. And speaking of executions, the book also traces the birth of modern chemistry and the untimely demise of Antoine Lavoisier via guillotine during the French revolution. His rival and discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestly narrowly escaped a similar fate and would later make the pilgrimage to America where he would serve as an instructor for one Benjamin Silliman (the “Professor” in A Professor, A President, & a Meteor”.

One wonders just how different scientific history would have been had these feuds turned out differently. For example, what kind of Steampunk world might we inhabit if many of Nikola Telsa’s early visions had been realized? An early student of one Thomas Alva Edison, Telsa and his alternating current were later demonized by Edison and company to the extent that pamphlets were even produced warning of the “evils of AC…” just stop and think of the modern world and the blog-o-sphere now made possible by alternating current. The battleground moves right up into the 20th century, perhaps fueled by the prestigious Nobel Prize first instituted in 1895. One of the most famous “snubs” in modern times is highlighted in the race to discover the structure of DNA and the tragic story of Rosalind Franklin. Nobel winners Watson & Crick first learned of the brilliant work of Ms. Franklin and then later distanced themselves from her post publication. To their credit, the co-discoverers of DNA later acknowledged her pivotal role and Rosalind herself never took the reality of the double helix seriously; she died of cancer in 1958 prior to the Nobel award. Many have speculated that she just might have shared in the award had she have lived. (Nobels aren’t given posthumously).

With the advent of 20th century, the scientific feuding became a war between institutions and ideologies, first with the race to build the Atom Bomb that sprung out of World War II and then the Cold War race into space. The final tale of computer innovation rivalry demonstrates that corporate espionage is still alive and well, whether it involves the back-engineering of an unreleased IPhone found in a bar or a multi-million dollar backdoor hack. Would Darwin have followed Owen, had Twitter been available in his day? Perhaps all of this competition is not entirely a bad thing, as we seem drawn to the tribal drama of “A” against “B” whether its in the sports arena or in science. Cooperation may have built the International Space Station, but beating the competition sent us to the Moon… where will the next scientific battlefield be?

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