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Science Secrets

Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin's Finches, Einstein's Wife, and Other Myths

Alberto A. Martínez
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Science Secrets
    Book Description:

    Was Darwin really inspired by Galápagos finches? Did Einstein's wife secretly contribute to his theories? Did Franklin fly a kite in a thunderstorm? Did a falling apple lead Newton to universal gravity? Did Galileo drop objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Did Einstein really believe in God?Science Secretsanswers these questions and many others. It is a unique study of how myths evolve in the history of science. Some tales are partly true, others are mostly false, yet all illuminate the tension between the need to fairly describe the past and the natural desire to fill in the blanks.Energetically narrated, Science Secrets pits famous myths against extensive research from primary sources in order to accurately portray important episodes in the sciences. Alberto A. Martínez analyzes how such myths grow and rescues neglected facts that are more captivating than famous fictions. Moreover, he shows why opinions that were once secret and seemingly impossible are now scientifically compelling. The book includes new findings related to the Copernican revolution, alchemy, Pythagoras, young Einstein, and other events and figures in the history of science.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8017-9
    Subjects: General Science, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. List of Myths and Apparent Myths
    (pp. ix-x)
  2. 1 Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa
    (pp. 1-12)

    Although many writers dismiss this tall tale as apocryphal, some writers, teachers, and physicists still claim that Galileo Galilei carried out experiments on gravity by dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Here is an old and dramatic version of the story:

    Members of the University of Pisa, and other onlookers, are assembled in the space at the foot of the wonderful leaning tower of white marble in that city one morning in the year 1591. A young professor [Galileo] climbs the spiral staircase until he reaches the gallery surmounting the seventh tier of arches. The people below watch...

  3. 2 Galileo’s Pythagorean Heresy
    (pp. 13-46)

    Even without evidence, most people believe in Earth’s motion. When asked why Earth moves, some college students reply: “because of the seasons” or “because astronauts see it from spaceships.” But seen from Earth, the spaceships seem to move instead, so who’s right? And for thousands of years, it seemed that the seasons change just because the sun rises at different places on the horizon, taking different paths; so why not say that seasons are caused by the sun’s motions? Centuries ago, teachers taught that the sun circles Earth, and it seemed obvious; now they teach the contrary, and it seems...

  4. 3 Newton’s Apple and the Tree of Knowledge
    (pp. 47-69)

    Let’s dispel another widespread myth: that Newton was born in the same year Galileo died. This mistake continues to appear in recent literature, such as in this example: “He died in 1642, within a few days of Isaac Newton’s birth.”¹ Writers often claim that both events happened in 1642, which, by the way, would fit nicely with the Pythagorean idea of the transmigration of souls. I have even found some writers who claimed that Newton “was born on the very day on which Galileo died.”² As other writers know, the mistake stems from using the Gregorian calendar to date the...

  5. 4 The Stone of the Ancients
    (pp. 70-94)

    In 1657, Oswald Crollie referred to alchemy as follows: “This visible and invisible fellowship of Nature is that golden chaine so much commended, this is the marriage of heaven and riches, these are Plato’s rings, this is that dark and close Phylosophy so hard to be known in the most inward and secret parts of Nature, for the gaining whereof Democritus, Pythagoras, Apollonius, &c. have travelled to the Brachmans and Gymnosophists in the Indies, and to Hermes his Pillars in Æegypt.”¹ By contrast, chemists later viewed alchemy in the same way that astronomers viewed astrology—as an irrational, ancestral fraud....

  6. 5 Darwin’s Missing Frogs
    (pp. 95-117)

    Many old books claim that when Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands, he was inspired to think about evolution by seeing variations in finches’ beaks. Most people believed that species were as unchangeable as the chemical elements. Just as no metallurgist could ever make gold, fish or lizards could never become birds. As the story goes, Darwin changed all that when he theorized the “Transmutation of Species.” Allegedly, he found that each species of finch belonged to a particular island and had developed distinct feeding habits that matched their evolving beaks, for cracking small or big seeds or for eating...

  7. 6 Ben Franklin’s Electric Kite
    (pp. 118-127)

    Like Darwin’s finches, other images have greatly influenced popular ideas about the history of science. One that is etched in our minds is that of stocky Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm. It shows up in books, stamps, art, and currency, even on a U.S. silver dollar issued in 2006. It enchants because it shows a self-made American using a child’s toy to make a major contribution to science: to prove that there is electricity in the clouds, that the awesome force of lightning involves the same stuff as electricity. But that image has lost some of its...

  8. 7 Coulomb’s Impossible Experiment?
    (pp. 128-146)

    In many schoolbooks, electricity shows up as just another dry, boring, difficult, and monotonous subject. But it wasn’t always that boring. Electricity seemed to hold the secret of life after death. In 1802, an Italian experimenter, Giovanni Aldini, performed demonstrations before French scientists, using dead animals and prongs to transmit electrical currents. Witnesses reported: “Aldini, after having cut off the head of a dog, passed the current of a strong battery: the mere contact triggers truly frightful convulsions. The mouth opens, teeth rattle, eyes roll in their sockets; and if reason did not deter the agitated imagination, one would almost...

  9. 8 Thomson, Plum-Pudding, and Electrons
    (pp. 147-163)

    We learn in school that electricity is a current of subatomic particles that are negatively charged:electrons. But who discovered that and how? Just as the question of whether Pythagoras discovered anything is complex, so is the issue of what constitutes authorship of a scientific discovery. In the case of electrons, fortunately, we have plenty of documentary evidence. That evidence involves a story about the British physicist J.J. Thomson.

    Incidentally, I once had a problem with Thomson, when I was growing up in Puerto Rico. When I was about sixteen years old, I participated in a television quiz show with...

  10. 9 Did Einstein Believe in God?
    (pp. 164-171)

    Albert Einstein became famous not only for his physics, but for various clever statements that impressed many people. He sometimes spoke of God and religion, with measured words that resonated across a range of beliefs. Many Jews and Christians alike considered him a kindred soul, while many atheists and agnostics celebrated him as a fellow skeptic. When pressed, he sometimes spoke in ambiguous terms. What did the physicist really believe about religion?

    He described his parents as “entirely irreligious” Jews.¹ His sister Maja also recalled that their parents did not discuss religious matters or rules. Yet they chose to provide...

  11. 10 A Myth about the Speed of Light
    (pp. 172-192)

    Einstein kept some secrets, and he often shunned attention as if the details of his life were quite inconsequential. He wrote: “the essential in the being of a man of my type lies precisely inwhathe thinks andhowhe thinks, not in what he does or suffers.”¹ Although he was a relatively self-isolating person, people flocked to him, reporters and photographers chased him around for decades, converting him into an icon. We see him in posters, magazines, toys, postage stamps, cereal boxes. As he complained in 1949: “my accomplishments have been overvalued beyond all bounds for incomprehensible reasons....

  12. 11 The Cult of the Quiet Wife
    (pp. 193-205)

    Here’s an intriguing tale: having enjoyed decades of extraordinary fame, Albert Einstein never admitted that his acclaimed theory of relativity owed partly to the secret contributions of his modest wife. Not only had they lived together during his most creative year, they had studied physics together and when he won the Nobel Prize he gave the money to her. Was she his secret collaborator? It’s a good story, but is it true?

    Proponents of Einstein’s wife have been arguing about this for years. It would be awful to discover that historians and physicists have systematically lied, based on some sexist...

  13. 12 Einstein and the Clock Towers of Bern
    (pp. 206-215)

    Near the center of the old city of Bern, there stands a massive medieval tower that, in the 1300s, served as a prison for women who had illicit relations with clergymen. In 1405, a great fire burned it severely. The structure was rebuilt and converted into a bell tower bearing a great astronomical clock. On two faces, golden clock-hands tipped by suns point to hours, while another dial shows the phases of the moon. Five ancient gods—Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Venus—illustrate five days of the week as well as the five planets of Ptolemy’s heavens. And near...

  14. 13 The Secret of Einstein’s Creativity?
    (pp. 216-228)

    Many theories have been proposed to explain Albert Einstein’s creativity. For example, Peter Galison argued that Einstein’s relativity arose from the fruitful intersection of three fields: science, philosophy, and technology. Although Galison wrote more about the technological side, he acknowledged that science and philosophy were very important too. In physics, technology, and philosophy, people were concerned with notions of time. There’s something pleasant in the idea that the intersection of these three fields generated Einstein’s conceptual breakthrough. But one reviewer of Galison’s book fairly complained: “The inevitable question is then to decide what weight to attach to these different factors,...

  15. 14 Eugenics and the Myth of Equality
    (pp. 229-246)

    When you go to the supermarket, you can see that the tomatoes are round, smooth, very red, and not nearly as bitter as you might imagine. Can we make them better? Yes, and we already have: those tomatoes have been engineered systematically to be redder, sweeter, and to last longer. Tomatoes have been improved to withstand various germs, bugs, and disease. Similarly, breeders create dogs with tailored characteristics such as modified bodies, hair, and teeth. Dogs descended from wolves, we hear, yet dogs are easier to get along with. You can have one in your house without constantly worrying that...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 247-256)

    Stories of innate genius still generate interest in science, but they also disguise. Pythagoras, Newton, and Einstein are sometimes portrayed as nearly divine. But that hides answers to questions: What did they really do? And how did they do it? Because they were gifted, well born?

    At the start of this book, I said that portrayals of science often take the shapes of myths. I was referring to some questionable aspects of old religious cults, such as the tendency to deify charismatic leaders, to celebrate their achievements as miracles, to shroud knowledge in esoteric language, to neglect genuine understanding, and...

  17. Illustration Sources and Credits
    (pp. 315-316)