Saturday, February 12, 2022

Epic Fights in Science

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the explanations may not make sense without the animations in the video.]

Scientists are rational by profession. They objectively evaluate the evidence and carefully separate fact from opinion. Except of course they don’t, really. In this episode, we will talk about some epic fights among scientists that show very much that scientists, after all, are only human. Who dissed whom and why and what can we learn from that? That’s what we’ll talk about today.

1. Wilson vs Dawkins

Edward Wilson passed away just a few weeks ago at age 92. He is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant biologists in history. But some of his ideas about evolution got him into trouble with another big shot of biology: Richard Dawkins.

In 2012 Dawkins reviewed Wilson’s book “The Social Conquest of Earth”. He left no doubt about his misgivings. In his review Dawkins wrote: 
“unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” [...] and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.”
Wilson idea of group selection is based on a paper that he wrote together with two mathematicians in 2010. When their paper was published in Nature magazine, it attracted criticism from more than 140 evolutionary biologists, among them some big names in the field. 

In his review, Dawkins also said that Wilson’s paper probably would never have been published if Wilson hadn’t been so famous. That Wilson then ignored the criticism and published his book pretending nobody disagreed with him was to Dawkins “an act of wanton arrogance”.

Dawkins finished his review: 
“To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.”
Wilson replied that his theory was mathematically more sound that of kin selection, and that he also had a list of names who supported his idea but, he said,
“if science depended on rhetoric and polls, we would still be burning objects with phlogiston and navigating with geocentric maps.”
In a 2014 BBC interview, Wilson said:
“There is no dispute between me and Richard Dawkins and never has been. Because he is a journalist, and journalists are people who report what the scientists have found. And the arguments I’ve had, have actually been with scientists doing research.”
Right after Wilson passed away, Dawkins tweeted: 
“Sad news of death of Ed Wilson. Great entomologist, ecologist, greatest myrmecologist, invented sociobiology, pioneer of island biogeography, genial humanist & biophiliac, Crafoord & Pulitzer Prizes, great Darwinian (single exception, blind spot over kin selection). R.I.P.”

2. Leibniz vs Newton

Newton and Leibniz were both instrumental in the development of differential calculus, but they approached the topic entirely differently. Newton came at it from a physical perspective and thought about the change of variables with time. Leibniz had a more abstract, analytical approach. He looked at general variables x and y that could take on infinitely close values. Leibniz introduced dx and dy as differences between successive values of these sequences.

The two men also had a completely different attitude to science communication. Leibniz put a lot of thought into the symbols he used and how he explained himself. Newton, on the other hand, wrote mostly for himself and often used whatever notation he liked on that day. Because of this, Leibniz’s notation was much easier to generalize to multiple variables and much of the notation we use in calculus today goes back to Leibniz. Though the notation xdot for speed and x double dot for acceleration that we use in physics comes from Newton.

Okay, so they both developed differential calculus. But who did it *first? Historians say today it’s clear that Newton had the idea first, during the plague years sixteen sixty-five and sixty-six, but he didn’t write it up until 5 years later and it wasn’t published for more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, Leibniz invented calculus in the mid 1670s. So, by the time word got out, it looked as if they’d both had the idea at the same time.

Newton and Leibniz then got into a bitter dispute over who was first. Leibniz wrote to the British Royal Society to ask for a committee to investigate the matter. But at that time the society’s president was… Isaac Newton. And Newton simply drafted the report himself. He wrote “we reckon Mr Newton the first inventor” and then presented it to the members of the committee to sign, which they did.

The document was published in 1712 by the Royal Society with the title Commercium Epistolicum Collinii et aliorum, De Analysi promota. In the modern translation the title would be “Newton TOTALLY DESTROYS Leibniz”.

On top of that, a comment on the report was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. The anonymous author, who was also Newton, explained in this comment: 
“the Method of Fluxions, as used by Mr. Newton, has all the Advantages of the Differential, and some others. It is more elegant ... Newton has recourse to converging Series, and thereby his Method becomes incomparably more universal than that of Mr. Leibniz.”
Leibniz responded with his own anonymous publication, a four page paper which in the modern translation would be titled “Leibniz OWNS Newton”. That “anonymous” text gave all the credit to Leibniz and directly accused Newton of stealing calculus. Leibniz even wrote his own History and Origin of Differential Calculus in 1714. He went so far to change the dates on some of his manuscripts to pretend he knew about calculus before he really did.

And Newton? Well, even after Leibniz died, Newton refused mentioning him in the third edition of his Principia.

You can read the full story in Rupert Hall’s book “Philosophers at war.”

3. Edison vs Tesla  

Electric lights came in use around the end of the 19th Century. At first, they all worked with Thomas Edison’s direct current system, DC for short. But his old employee Nicola Tesla had developed a competing system, the alternate current system, or AC for short. Tesla had actually offered it to Edison when he was working for him, but Edison didn’t want it.

Tesla then went to work for the engineer George Westinghouse. Together they created an AC system that was threatening Edison’s dominance on the market. The “war of the currents” began.

An engineer named Harold Brown, later found to be paid by Edison’s company, started writing letters to newspapers trying to discredit AC, saying that it was really dangerous and that the way to go was DC.

This didn’t have the desired effect, and Edison soon took more drastic steps. I have to warn you that the following is a really ugly story and in case you find animal maltreatment triggering, I think you should skip over the next minute.

Edison organized a series of demonstrations in which he killed dogs by electrocuting them with AC, arguing that a similar voltage in DC was not so deadly. Edison didn’t stop there. He went on to electrocute a horse, and then an adult elephant which he fried with a stunning 6000 volts. There’s an old still movie of this, erm, demonstration on YouTube. If you really want to see it, I’ll leave a link in the info below.

Still Edison wasn’t done. He paid Brown to build an electric chair with AC generators that they bought from Westinghouse and Tesla, and then had Brown lobby for using it to electrocute people so the general public would associate AC with death. And that partly worked. But in the end AC won mostly because it’s more efficient when sent over long distances.

4. Cope vs Marsh  

Another scientific fight from the 19th Century happened in paleontology, and this one I swear only involves animals that were already dead anyway.

The American paleontologists, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh met in 1863 as students in Germany. They became good friends and later named some discoveries after each other.

Cope for example named an amphibian fossl Ptyonius marshii, after Marsh and, in return Marsh named a gigantic serpent Mosasaurus copeanus.

However, they were both very competitive and soon they were trying to outdo each other. Cope later claimed it all started when he showed Marsh a location where he’d found fossils and Marsh, behind Cope’s back, bribed the quarry operators to send anything they’d find directly to Marsh.

Marsh’s version of events is that things went downhills after he pointed out that Cope had published a paper in which he had reconstructed a dinosaur fossil but got it totally wrong. Cope had mistakenly reversed the vertebrae and then put the skull at the end of the tail! Marsh claimed that Cope was embarrassed and wanted revenge.

Whatever the reason, their friendship was soon forgotten. Marsh hired spies to track Cope and on some occasions had people destroy fossils before Cope could get his hands on them. Cope tried to boost his productivity by publishing the discovery of every new bone as that of a new species, a tactic which the American paleontologist Robert Bakker described as “taxonomic carpet-bombing.” Cope’s colleagues disapproved, but it was remarkably efficient. Cope would publish about 1400 academic papers in total. Marsh merely made it to 300.

But Marsh eventually became chief paleontologists of the United States Geological Survey, USGS, and used its funds to promote his own research while cutting funds for Cope’s expeditions. And when Cope still managed to do some expeditions, Marsh tried to take his fossils, claiming that since the USGS funded them, they belonged to the government.

This didn’t work out as planned. Cope could prove that he had financed most of his expeditions with his own money. He then contacted a journalist at the New York Herald who published an article claiming Marsh had misused USGS funds. An investigation found that Cope was right. Marsh was expelled from the Society without his fossils, because they had been obtained with USGS funds.

In a last attempt to outdo Marsh, Cope stated in his will that he’d donated his skull to science. He wanted his brain to be measured and compared to that of Marsh! But Marsh didn’t accept the challenge, so the world will never know which of the two had the bigger brain.

Together the two men discovered 136 species of dinosaurs (Cope 56 and Marsh 80) but they died financially ruined with their scientific reputation destroyed.

5. Hoyle vs The World

British astronomer Fred Hoyle is known as the man who discovered how nuclear reactions work inside stars. In 1983, the Nobel Prize in physics was given... to his collaborator Willy Fowler, not to Hoyle. Everyone, including Fowler, was stunned. How could that happen?

Well, the Swedish Royal Academy isn’t exactly forthcoming with information, but over the years Hoyle’s colleagues have offered the following explanation. Let’s go back a few years to 1974.

In that year, the Nobel Prize for physics went to Anthony Hewish for his role in the discovery of pulsars. Upon hearing the news Hoyle told a reporter: “Jocelyn Bell was the actual discoverer, not Hewish, who was her supervisor, so she should have been included.” Bell’s role in the discovery of pulsars is widely recognized today, but in 1974, that Hoyle put in a word for Bell made global headlines.

Hewish was understandably upset, and Hoyle clarified in a letter to The Times that his issue wasn’t with Hewish, but with the Nobel committee: “I would add that my criticism of the Nobel award was directed against the awards committee itself, not against Professor Hewish. It seems clear that the committee did not bother itself to understand what happened in this case.”

Hoyle’s biographer Simon Mitton claimed this is why Hoyle didn’t get the Nobel Prize: The Nobel Prize committee didn’t like being criticized. However, the British scientist Sir Harry Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996, doesn’t think this is what happened.

Kroto points out that while Hoyle may have made a groundbreaking physics discovery, he was also a vocal defender of some outright pseudoscience, for example, he believed that the flu was caused by microbes that rain down on us from outer space.

Hoyle was also, well, an unfriendly and difficult man who had offended most of his colleagues at some point. According to Sir Harry, the actual reason that Hoyle didn’t get a Nobel Prize was that he’d use it to promote pseudoscience. He said
“Hoyle was so arrogant and dismissive of others that he would use the prestige of the Nobel prize to foist his other truly ridiculous ideas on the lay public. The whole scientific community felt that.”
So what do we learn from that? Well, one thing we can take away is that if you want to win a Nobel Prize, don’t spread pseudoscience. But the bigger lesson I think is that while some competition is a good thing, it’s best enjoyed in small doses.

No comments:

Post a Comment

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.