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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
An Introduction to the Historiography of Science - Helge S. Kragh This is the fourth book I have read by Helge Kragh, and as usual it is extremely impressive. I know hardly anyone who makes me feel quite as ignorant: Kragh's breadth of knowledge is phenomenal, and he appears equally at home with scientific and historical issues. As far as I can tell, he's read absolutely everything relevant in both subjects. It's hard to understand how he's found the time.

The book systematically describes the problems and methods involved in writing histories of science; some of it is rather dry, but Kragh puts in enough good stories that I was never bored for more than a couple of pages. He is particularly good at exploding myths, and showing you how difficult it is to be certain of anything in scientific history. For example, there is a nice segment on Einstein and the Michelson-Morley experiment. The way I first read the story, I think in Asimov's The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science, this discovery was what got the theory of relativity started: after seven years of work, Michelson and Morley found that the speed of light wasn't affected by the Earth's movement through space. A key piece of evidence came from a speech that Einstein made in Michelson's honor, on the one occasion they met in person.

But in the 50s, Einstein wrote that he didn't even know about the Michelson-Morley experiment until after he'd published his first relativity paper in 1905. So maybe he was just being polite when he gave the speech in front of Michelson? There are people who have argued for this interpretation. Kragh digs around some more: he finds earlier evidence, where Einstein did say that he was aware of the experiment when he started working on relativity. It seems that he'd forgotten this when he wrote his retrospective statement near the end of his life.

Another bit I liked concerned Galois, the brilliant French mathematician who was killed in a duel at age 20. As everyone knows, he was set up; the duel was supposedly over a woman, but was really a political assassination. He was sure he would be killed, and spent the preceding night feverishly writing up what would later be known as Galois theory, interspersing the mathematics with frantic complaints that "I have no time!" Alas, it turns out that none of this is true. The duel was not over his mistress, but was an unrelated private quarrel; he did spend the preceding night writing, but it wasn't Galois theory, just some rather mundane editing.

The most startling section, though, was about A.D. White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, which I read last year. White spent 20 years writing it, and it's highly respected. At one point, discussing the reaction to Copernicus, White has the following passage:
While Lutheranism was thus condemning the theory of the earth's movement, other branches of the Protestant Church did not remain behind. Calvin took the lead, in his Commentary on Genesis, by condemning all who asserted that the earth is not the centre of the universe. He clinched the matter by the usual reference to the first verse of the ninety-third Psalm, and asked, 'Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?'
This has been quoted by, among others, such prominent authorities as Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, J.G. Crowther and Thomas Kuhn. Unfortunately, painstaking research by Rosen and Hooykaas conclusively demonstrated that Calvin never said any such thing.

Why is the history of science so appallingly full of this kind of sloppiness? I still don't really know, but Kragh's book at least leaves me feeling more skeptical, and hopefully a little less likely to believe the next outrageous claim I happen to read.