The Human Side Of Science by Arthur W. Wiggins and Charles M. Wynn (book review).

May 20, 2016 | By | Reply More

In many respects, ‘The Human Side Of Science’ mixes science into looking at the professional careers of people who came up with a discovery and how they got on with their contemporaries working in the same field. Understanding their foibles is useful, especially if you’re creating scientists for stories and want to know what makes them different from other people.


I think I ought to correct that just a little as they aren’t much different from other people. Sometimes, just more so. You get your pious bigheads and ambitious who want to keep others out of their world picture as much as in any other career. All the kinds of people you must bump into in to your own workplace. In fact, that’s often how some do keep their career and their followers, often outside of science, keep it going for centuries after. In some respects, you can’t blame these people. After all, it does get put into their heads that science is idiosyncratic and volatile even today but if a new theory comes along then see how quickly it can be adopted if true or disclaimed if wrong. The same also applies if its right but other scientists prefer it to be wrong. Most of the scientific laws indeed come out of such elements that way but they have to be applied to things like planetary orbits and then find things aren’t quite they seem and then observation has to be taken into account and work out what is going on. You only have to see that with the perception that all planetary orbits are circular except they aren’t but elliptical. The rules of science haven’t been changed but it does account for the information. With science, at least evidence and repeatable testing by other people will stand in good stead.

This book looks at how the contemporary scientists got on at the time they were around. Not all of it was lovey-dovey. Often at loggerheads as to who came up with the discoveries first, let alone whether it was valid or not. The focus of this book is therefore on the their histories crossing over and their discoveries so you get a lot of ground covered.

It’s therefore hardly surprising that this book starts with the likes of Aristotle, who kept things tightly laid down and later enforced by the church and it took a long time to have his pedestal knocked down. There is a lot of other info here as well. Did you know that Democritus came up with the term ‘atom’ believing nothing could be cut smaller? Without an electron microscope, he was probably right for his time period.

I’ve dealt with scientists making sense of the cosmos many times here and quite recently, so I won’t dwell so much on them. I have heard of Daniel Bernoulli, just never realised that he was one member of a family of scientists. If you have an inkling for playing ball games, his knowledge of where you hit the ball can spin it in different directions is his.

The conflicts between Anton Lavoisier and Benjamin Thompson, a continent apart, was more to do the caloric values of energy although ultimately married the former’s widow, who was also scientifically inclined.

In contrast, there was more co-operation with the discovery of the elements and putting them into the Periodic Table. Hardly surprising as there was enough discoveries to go around. John Dalton and Dmitri Mendeleev are significant for putting an end to Aristotle’s notion that as to what made up the elements and establishing modern chemistry.

Everyone knows about Thomas Edison and direct current electricity but it is George Westinghouse who made the better contribution to using alternating current electricity with Nikola Tesla in between them both because he worked out how to design the step-up transformer to make it safer to move electricity around better than William H. Stanley Jr. None of this was helped by Edison believing direct current was safer than alternating current. To some extent, he was correct but direct current wouldn’t travel so far.

Something else that we take for granted today is continental drift but it took a lot of hard work from Alfred Wegener to convince the scientific community that it was true, despite the jigsaw evidence of the continents fitting together. Before any of you folk reading here suddenly start thinking that this could apply to any theory, bear in mind that there is a need to have actual evidence and proof that you are right. All the scientists in this book belong to that category.

Unsurprisingly, Einstein gets two chapters covering his life and if ever there was a maverick theoretical scientist, he was top of the list. Reading about him, you’ll soon realise he was more than a Patent Office clerk and was doing the job to make ends meet to feed his family. He was often at loggerheads with his university tutors and often didn’t attend lessons believing that some of the taught theories were wrong and barely got his degree because of it. When things started to get moving for him, it was the other scientists who agreed and rallied around him that got things moving although relativity and such were further down the line.

Something that comes out of seeing the background of astronomy in the last century is how women got into astronomy was because Edward Pickering thought his housekeeper could do a better job of studying the pile of photo-plates than his assistant whom he fired. She was also a lot cheaper but he also brought in a lot more women to do the work of tracking star changes and the realisation many were actually galaxies.

The examination of the development of the first atomic bomb doesn’t actually focus much on that of the Manhattan Project but a lot of the work leading around it and that centres on Leo Szilárd as a crucial key player about the lack of contact between chief scientists because of secrecy involved and would have speeded things up.

More up-to-date is the development of the genome project and how co-operation got things moving quickly. Thinking about that, especially with so many different disciplines are involved these days, that there is a very strong case for people with different expertises to be brought in on projects and to have a better idea of what is going on beyond their particular aspect.

The last chapter of the book is divided into ten sections looking at important but smaller biographical scientists. If you ever wondered where the ‘boson’ in the Higgs Boson particle came from, look no further than Indian Satyendra Nath Bose, whose work got him attributed to 15 sub-particles. There is also a look at actress Hedy Lamarr who, apart from having a pretty face and an actress, also contributed several inventions with George Antheil including proximity fuses for torpedoes and sending multi-frequency signals that is now commonplace in your mobile phones amongst others. Probably the biggest cross-connection is the investigations into extra-terrestrial life and how it has grown in recent years.

I should also point out that throughout, there are scientific cartoons from Sidney Harris with a sideway slant at some of the scientists and science. Most of the scientists here have their photographs as well which means if you didn’t know what they looked like before, then you will do now.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I’ve learnt a lot more than I expected and there’s a lot I haven’t really covered. You aren’t likely to get bogged down with any maths here but you will have a better grip on a lot of scientific subjects which I thought was a surprise bonus considering I thought it would all be biographies. This makes this book a useful addition to your science books.

GF Willmetts

May 2016

(pub: Prometheus Books. 343 page hardback. Price: $25.00 (US), $26.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-156-3. Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-63388-157-0)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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