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Science
TEST-TUBES AND TANTRUMS
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Great Arguments in the History of Science
Monday to Friday 24 to 28 April 2006 3.45-4.00pm (repeats) 

When great science minds collide, the insults traded and the bile spilt has been both personal and scandalous. But all too often, the victor's reputation is scrubbed clean by the passage of history. William Hartston rakes up some of the muck that has always been part and parcel of the nature of scientific practice, but that few of us know about.

Isaac Newton & Gottfried Leibniz
(L) Isaac Newton, Copyright Royal Society, and (R) Gottfried Leibniz

Programme 1:
Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz


It is probably impossible to overestimate the importance to science of differential and integral calculus. It is now generally accepted that Newton and Leibniz discovered it independently of each other, Newton first formulating his methods around 1665.

But when Leibniz, a German civil servant, published his work in 1684 and didn’t even mention the name of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, who had helped him in letters on more than one occasion, blood boiled in the lounges of learned societies and on podiums of lecture halls across Europe, and a schism in science opened up that would hold back British science and thinking, and would not heal for some 140 years.

Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey, a national hero. Leibniz, who has since been described as the last universal genius, died a poor failure, with only his former secretary attending his funeral.


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Joseph Priestley & Antoine Lavoisier
(L) Joseph Priestley, Copyright Royal Society, and (R) Antoine Lavoisier

Programme 2:
Joseph Priestley and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier


There are two pugilists in our second squabble. The English contender was Joseph Priestley - a minister of the church, a librarian and literary companion to the political aristocracy. On the French side, Antoine Lavoisier – wealthy son of a lawyer, social climber, tax collector and widely held to be the founder of modern chemistry.

In or around 1774 both men were working on a gas closely associated with combustion. Priestley called it “dephlogisticated air”. Lavoisier named it oxygen.

Their research techniques were very different – while Priestley heated and sniffed, Lavoisier heated, weighed, measured and made calculations.

It could be said that though Priestley almost certainly isolated the gas first, Lavoisier understood it first. But the ruck didn’t seem so simple during the late 1700’s, when revolutions were overturning more than just chemical theories.

Lavoisier lost his head to Mme La Guillotine. Priestley lost his house to a rioting mob in the Midlands, and fled to America.


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Roderick Murchison & Henry De La Beche
(L) Roderick Impey Murchison and (R) Henry Thomas De La Beche
Courtesy Roger Vaughan Picture Library

Programme 3:
Henry Thomas De La Beche and Roderick Impey Murchison


In the third set of tantrums we move on to the unseemly row which developed among leading earth scientists in the 1830s. The new science of geology was just beginning to make progress with working out the sequence in which different rocks were laid down.

At the same time it was also becoming successful at predicting where coal could be found. So all was well and there was a rush to map the country and establish names for different periods in geological history.

Then one man, Henry De La Beche, in Devon, found some fossils that according to another man, Roderick Murchison, could not be there. They threatened Murchisons’ theory and furious debate followed over the next decade.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison was a wealthy Scot, military hero and reputedly one of the finest fox hunters in the land. He was typical of the gentlemen amateurs who were making the running in the new science of geology. Tipped for the presidency of the geological society, he did not take kindly to the findings.

Henry De La Beche was one of a new breed of geologists who actually had to work for a living. When his contentious findings were presented to the society, he was too poor to afford the fare up to London, and his letter was read in his absence.

In the end, the science of geology was helped by the fight – furious though it was - and De La Beche could be said to have pioneered the career of the professional geologist, transforming what had been a pastime for the priveleged few into a serious career option for many.

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Trofim Lysenko & Nikolai Vavilov
(L) Trofim Lysenko
and (R) Nikolai Vavilov, photographed in prison in 1940

Programme 4:
Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko and Nikolai Ivanovitch Vavilov


Science and politics have never felt comfortable with each other, but the relationship sank to a brutal low in Russia in the 1920s. The Communist Revolution had delivered power to the masses, but the masses weren’t delivering the goods. Agriculture, and in particular cereal production, was high on Stalin’s list for attention – the drive to increase productivity was immense and the new science of genetics had a vital role to play.

Nikolai Ivanovitch Vavilov, an extraordinarily gifted agriculturalist and academic, realised this. He started to look scientifically for ways to feed the people.

Another up and coming scientist, Trofim Denisovic Lysenko, understood far better the minds of politicians. Blending his style of botany with Stalin’s version of Marxism, he gained the state’s full support and was put in charge of the whole future programme of cereal production.

As Vavilov continued his own research, support for Lysenko began to diminish as his claims began to sound increasingly far-fetched. Eventually Lysenko began to make Vavilov and his followers the scapegoat for the short-comings of his own programme.

Lysenko’s skill was to paint his critics in a politically damaging light. Ultimately this led to the arrest of Vavilov in 1940, charged with wrecking Soviet agriculture. Shortly after his arrest, Vavilov's health deteriorated rapidly and he died in prison. He was only one of thousands of Soviet geneticists wiped out in the Stalinist purges, and every such death only strengthened Lysenko’s position.

It was not only a tragedy for Soviet scientists: it was also a tragedy for Soviet science. Vavilov had lost his life for allegedly holding back the development of Soviet agriculture - Lysenko stayed in power even after Stalin’s death despite doing just that, and aroused more negative passions than few scientists have ever managed.


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Arthur Eddington and Subramanyan Chandrasekhar
(L) Arthur Eddington, Copyright the Royal Astronomical Society
and (R) Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, Copyright the Royal Society

Programme 5:
Arthur Stanley Eddington and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Sir Arthur Eddington was the most distinguished British astrophysicist in the 1930s. He had found experimental proof of Einstein's theory of relativity during a solar eclipse and he had worked out what goes on inside stars.

Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was a young brilliant Indian physicist who had a theory explaining what happens to stars when their nuclear fuel runs out. His calculations showed that if a star was large enough it literally collapsed into nothing, but paradoxically a nothing of huge mass and gravitational pull. In other words, this is what we now call a black hole. 

In this edition of Test Tubes and Tantrums, William Hartston tells the story of the row that exploded on a cold January day in 1935 between Eddington and Chandrasekhar. It was over the death of stars. Eddington vehemently disagreed with his young Cambridge colleague and ridiculed him at a meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society. He said Chandrasekhar's ideas were "stellar buffoonery". Eddington thought stars ended their lives as lumps of metal called white dwarves. 

The result of the dispute was that the science of astronomy was put on hold for thirty years. Chandrasekhar was hurt and left Cambridge University for the United States . He also changed his topic of research and it was three decades before his theory was proved right. Eddington died in 1944 and never retracted his attack on Chandrasekhar. 

William Hartston discusses this dispute with Arthur Miller, Professor of the History of Science at University College , London , and author of a forthcoming book on the row, Dr Simon Mitton of St Edmund's College, Cambridge University , and Peter Coles, Professor of Astrophysics at Nottingham University.

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