Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
The theme of this book is that scientists do sometimes believe things that seem opposed to reality or common sense. The author catalogs a series of such events in different chapters to illustrate that point. In other words, science has progressed over the years not only based on a steady aggregation of theories, hypotheses, and testing but also because of — or in spite of — the seeming craziness of some ideas and the conflict among different viewpoints that followed.
The common example of this is Newton’s serious interest in alchemy. Even there the author brings out the usual comment that alchemy, despite its fundamental flaws about matter, did familiarize some scientists with the need for testing which, as a byproduct, served to advance the cause of real chemistry.
Other chapters focus on different errors and misconceptions. Some of these led to total blind alleys. Others — e.g., research surrounding electricity and living organisms — did finally result in the emergence of testable and reproducible results.
Interestingly, the addenda and chapter notes provided by the author are as fascinating and as thought provoking as the content of the chapters themselves. Also entertaining are the author’s frequent comments on his own scientific beliefs as a child and how these changed over time.
While very entertaining, the fundamental message I take away from this book is quite profound and reflects some of my own beliefs. That is, there’s a lot about the universe that we don’t understand and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to assume that the “rules” we now understand about matter and energy will be constant or unchanging. Some might say that this is because humans aren’t able to understand how the mind of God works. Others might say this is because the universe is just so big and complex that our species may not last long enough to figure everything out. Either way, we’ll keep trying to understand and, along the way, crazy ideas will emerge.
Review copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald