Sabine Hossenfelder on the most epic fights between scientists

February 14, 2022 • 11:00 am

Here’s a 16-minute video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder that was forwarded to me by reader Steve, who added this

Sabine leads with the contretemps between E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. I found the whole video edifying, with my admiration for Thomas Edison taken down several notches.

Indeed! You will never look at Edison the same way again, especially if you go on the Internet and look for the video of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant, promoted by Edison.

The six fights:

1.) Richard Dawkins’s scathing review of E. O. Wilson’s 2012 book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which pushed a group-selectionist origin of human behavior. (I too reviewed that book for TLS and will send a copy on request).

2.) Wilson’s riposte that Dawkins was a “journalist.” Ouch!

3.) Leibniz vs. Newton’s debate about who first developed differential calculus. Newton got discovery precedence, but was slow to publish, so both men’s work appeared about the same time. A fight ensued, with Newton beefing to the Royal Society about credit. Newton won that fight, but there were a lot of bad feelings and mutual criticism. Leibniz also cheated by changing the dates of some of his manuscripts to try establishing precedence

4.) Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla over whether electric current should be delivered as direct (DC_ or alternating (AC). Edison, an advocate of DC, electrocuted animals (including Topsy the elephant, one of the most heinous acts imaginable) to show that AC was dangerous.

5.) The paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope versus Othniel Marsh, a conflict described in Wikipedia as “The Bone Wars”:

The Bone Wars, also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush, was a period of intense and ruthlessly competitive fossil hunting and discovery during the Gilded Age of American history, marked by a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale). Each of the two paleontologists used underhanded methods to try to outdo the other in the field, resorting to bribery, theft, and the destruction of bones. Each scientist also sought to ruin his rival’s reputation and cut off his funding, using attacks in scientific publications.

6.)  Fred Hoyle versus the world! Willy Fowler, Hoyle’s collaborator, got a Nobel Prize (with Chandrasekhar) in 1983. Both Hoyle and Fowler collaborated on how nuclear reactions work in stars. Why was Hoyle overlooked? Hossenfelder gives several possible explanations.

Hossenfelder’s lesson is that “competition is a good thing, but is best enjoyed in small doses”.  I’m not sure I agree, as the more competition there is in science, the faster we get to the truth. Yes, it’s unpleasant to see big guns acting petty, but in the end science is the beneficiary.

Hossenfelder also mentions that the conflicts show that scientists are human, but we already know that. There aren’t really lessons here beyond those in the history of science, but there’s a lot of intriguing history in this short video

16 thoughts on “Sabine Hossenfelder on the most epic fights between scientists

  1. The linked Wikipedia article about Topsy states, however: “In popular culture Thompson and Dundy’s killing of Topsy has switched attribution, with claims it was an anti-alternating current demonstration organized by Thomas A. Edison during the war of the currents. Edison was never at Luna Park and the electrocution of Topsy took place ten years after the war of currents.”

    1. Yeah, Edison was exploiting a random opportunity to make a snuff movie as a marketing ploy to sell a lot of kinetoscopes. Everybody involved was scum.

  2. I thought it was ironic and telling that Wilson’s response to Dawkins’s criticisms was to get in a scummy little, petty would-be dig that Dawkins is a journalist, not a scientist (which is not true, and wouldn’t be an insult if it were) as if he were a pro-wrestler dissing his opponent before a “match”, whereas Dawkins has never (to my knowledge) been anything but respectful of Wilson, and criticised Wilson on the merits of his ideas (unless there is something that I haven’t encountered). That’s not to say that Dawkins’s criticisms can’t be harsh and biting (in a very British sense), but I cannot imagine him trying to denigrate the man by saying something unrelated to the substance of the matter in question. Perhaps I’m wrong.

  3. I remember reading, some years ago, that Edison was involved in getting the state of New York to begin executions with an electric chair. And that was part of his campaign against AC as well. But the account I read involved George Westinghouse as much as Tesla, since he also was an AC proponent.

    1. She is so quirky that she is fringe, I do hope you get your physics information from several sources to balance out such bias.

  4. It’s not just Edison. Electricity and electronics don’t seem to bring out the best in people. Edwin Armstrong, who invented the superheterodyne, and super-regen circuits had deForest (inventor of the triode) take him to court over the patents, and later when he invented FM radio, Sarnoff at RCA plain stole the idea and kept the matter in the courts until Armstrong killed himself. Years after his death his wife finally won a settlement.

  5. I have a perception, however subjective and imperfect, that, when a researcher presents his findings before a group of scientists, there is all too often a great tendency among scientists seated in the audience to repeatedly interrupt the presenter in mid-sentence, much as U.S. Supreme Court Justices interrupt attorneys presenting their cases before the Court. (Or media types repeatedly interrupting interviewees.) I don’t see why that’s necessary. It seems downright rude. (Who is worthy to interrupt the interrupters?) Can’t they wait until the end of the presentation to lay into the presenter? ( I am hard pressed to blame the presenter should s/he have her/his fill of this and succumb to the temptation to reply with some rather choice words.)

  6. As I noted before, Sabine Hossenfelder is fringe and I absolutely refuse to get my science filtered through her as much as science history is useful.

    I’m not sure I find the deliberations behind the Nobel Prize Commitee decisions all that inspiring since they are not yet part of history, we have to wait for the disclosure in 2 more years. Here is what we now know:

    The Nobel Prize in Physics 1983 was divided equally between Subramanyan Chandrasekhar “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars” and William Alfred Fowler “for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe.”

    [ https://www.nobelprize.org/ ]

    From the presentation Speech by Professor Sven Johansson:

    It should now be clear that during their evolution stars exhibit many different physical processes of fundamental importance. Many scientists have studied the problems involved with these processes, but especially important contributions have been made by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and William Fowler.

    Chandrasekhar’s work is particularly many-sided and covers many aspects of the evolution of stars. An important part of his work is a study concerning the problems of stability in different phases of their evolution. In recent years he has studied relativistic effects, which become important because of the extreme conditions which arise during the later stages of the star’s development. One of Chandrasekhar’s most well known contributions is his study of the structure of white dwarfs. Even if some of these studies are from his earlier years, they have become topical again through advances in the fields of astronomy and space research.

    Fowler’s work deals with the nuclear reactions which take place during the evolution of stars. Apart from generating the energy which is emitted, they are important because they lead to the production of the chemical elements from the starting material, which mainly consists of the lightest element, hydrogen. Not only has Fowler carried out a great deal of experimental work on nuclear reactions of interest in the astrophysical context, but has also worked on this problem from a theoretical point of view. In the 1950’s, together with a number of colleagues, he developed a complete theory for the formation of the chemical elements in the Universe. This theory is still the basis of our knowledge in this area, and the latest advances in nuclear physics and space research have further shown this theory to be correct.

    So Chandrasekhar got the Prize for his Chandrasekhar limit work and Fowler for sustained work on nucleosynthesis. Indeed, in the Wikipedia article it is Fowler that consistently is mentioned [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucleosynthesis#History_of_nucleosynthesis_theory ]:

    Hoyle’s work explained how the abundances of the elements increased with time as the galaxy aged. Subsequently, Hoyle’s picture was expanded during the 1960s by contributions from William A. Fowler, Alastair G. W. Cameron, and Donald D. Clayton, followed by many others. The seminal 1957 review paper by E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle[4] is a well-known summary of the state of the field in 1957. That paper defined new processes for the transformation of one heavy nucleus into others within stars, processes that could be documented by astronomers.

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