LeVay: When Science Goes Wrong

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Simon LeVay, When Science Goes Wrong : Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery. New York : Plume, 2008. ix + 287 pages; with "Sources", no index.

Let's settle one quibble right at the start: a better title would have been When Scientists Go Bad, since these are tales about mistakes, bad judgment, or just plain stupid ideas on the part of scientists. Generally they were catastrophic, too, with human death resulting in eight of the twelve case studies.

This book is not an attack on science. I am a scientist myself, and I consider science to be one of the most beautiful, challenging, and worthwhile activities that humans can engage in. The events described in this book are no more the story of science than plane crashes are the story of aviation. [p. viii]

LeVay would like to think that these essays are studies in science as a human activity that can teach us lessons about how science operates. There's some of that but just as much it's the spectacle of a horrifying incident. These are not examples of the normal working of science as it advances by trial and error. These errors are more sensational, hardly work-a-day, and largely the result of hubris. On the other hand, science is what scientists do, so sometimes the results become the stuff of headlines. Largely these are stories more of personalities, less of science, but the mistakes and malfeasance of scientists can help clarify what it science and what is not.

However, there are lessons to be learned and scienticity to be had. LeVay mostly avoids sensationalism by sticking to research, documenting facts, and doing some careful analysis to work out, in some cases, what couldn't have happened, what must actually have happened, and who seems not to be telling the truth about it.

Occasionally he veers in the direction of sensational journalism: in the chapter on the volcanologists caught in an eruption, several pages of descriptions of people trying to escape amidst blood and severed limbs littering the ground doesn't add much to our scientific understanding, but I suppose it does keep the narrative moving along. On the whole, though, LeVay keeps his prose less sensatinal, and he interpolates between his facts with fair precision rather than extrapolating into outlandish conjecture. The lessons in how science operates come more from trying to understand the incidents than from the incidents themselves.

For instance, this working out from the evidence what must have happened in a little-known nuclear accident that killed three people:

Much more information was obtained from the reactor sit. During the eleven months following the accident, workers gradually tore down the reactor building while carefully documenting every item that was found. Many of the items, including the controls rods, were extremely radioactive. These were taken for study to a "hot lab" on the Testing Station, where they could be handled, cut up, and inspected with remotely controlled instruments.

The investigators first wanted to establish whether or not a nuclear excursion had in fact occurred. The fact that radiation levels in the reactor building were so high didn't compel that conclusion: The radiation came primarily from nuclear fuel that had been ejected from the reactor, but the fuel might have been ejected as the consequence of a chemical explosion or some other event within the reactor vessel. To resolve this issue, radiation technologists took one of the dead men's wedding rings and dissolved it in acid. They found that some of the gold atoms in the ring had ben converted from normal gold, 197Au, to radioactive gold, 198Au—a transition that occurs by capture of an extra neutron. Thus the presence of 198Au was proof that there had been an intense flash of neutrons during the accident, and these neutrons must have been generated by an uncontrolled chain reaction within the reactor's fuel elements. [p. 153]

LeVay's case studies are drawn from a number of disciplines: neuroscience (2), meteorology, volcanology, engineering, gene therapy, nuclear physics, microbiology, forensics, space science, speech pathology, and nuclear chemistry. Most are likely not familiar to every reader, which gives LeVay the chance to cover the ground from a fresh perspective, and he does a pretty good job of it.

-- Notes by JNS

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