Cover image for Everything's relative : and other fables from science and technology
Everything's relative : and other fables from science and technology
Rothman, Tony.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Hoboken, N.J. : Wiley, [2003]

Physical Description:
xvi, 272 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Q125 .R763 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The surprising truth behind many of the most cherished ""facts"" in science history
Morse invented the telegraph, Bell the telephone, Edison the light bulb, and Marconi the radio . . . right? Well . . . the truth is slightly more complicated. The history of science and technology is riddled with apocrypha, inaccuracies, and falsehoods, and physicist Tony Rothman has taken it upon himself to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Combining a storyteller's gifts with a scientist's focus and hardheaded devotion to the facts-such as they may be-Rothman breaks down many of the most famous ""just-so"" stories of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and technology to give credit where credit is truly due. From Einstein's possible misunderstanding of his own theories to actress Hedy Lemarr's role in the invention of the radio-controlled torpedo, he dredges his way through the legends of science history in relating the fascinating stories behind some of the most important, and often unsung, breakthroughs in science.
Tony Rothman, PhD (Bryn Mawr, PA), is a Research Associate at Bryn Mawr College. He is the author of seven other critically acclaimed science books and a frequent contributor to leading science publications, including Scientific American and Discover.

Author Notes

Tony Rothman is a physicist and writer

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this chatty popular science volume, physicist Rothman (Instant Physics; Doubt and Certainty) dispels cherished fables of scientific achievement by revealing that scientists sometimes lie, steal from each other and pursue personal and national glory in unethical ways. Rothman dissects historical records to reveal the complex and often ugly reality of the old scientific saw, "Either you do the calculation or you get the credit." Though he states that his intended audience is "the masses weaned on high school and college texts, television and magazines," his frantic forays into quantum physics, electromagnetism and relativity may lose lay readers. But details of personal rivalries and unscrupulous behavior among mythologized figures like physicist Richard Feynman and Thomas Edison are undeniably fascinating. Rothman sets a lot of the blame for the problem at the feet of the biggest award in science and on the public's "naive picture of science as a collection of discoveries made by isolated geniuses." He suggests abolishing the Nobel Prize, and with it scientists' desire to claim first dibs on discoveries. Ultimately, the book does offer credit to the unsung heroes of science, but it whips too quickly through names, interactions, dates and scientific principles. Readers may feel as if they've been left with tarnished heroes, without having the satisfaction of discovering clear replacements. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Choice Review

Physicist Rothman's subtitle "...Fables from Science and Technology" advertises his iconoclastic intentions in this series of essays. Commonplaces in the history of science and technology (e.g., Fleming discovered penicillin, Morse invented the telegraph, Kekule dreamed the structure of benzene, Eddington's observation of deflected starlight in the 1909 eclipse confirmed relativity) are shown to be not merely overly simplistic but often seriously inaccurate, colorful reconstructions, or outright fabrications. Similar in some respects to Arthur Koestler and his depiction of scientists as "sleepwalkers" or James Burke and his narratives of serendipity and coincidences in discovery, Rothman differs from these authors in seeing, among the opportunism underlying complex processes of discovery, a single-minded pursuit, creativity, and thoughtful syntheses of others' work. Though his theme is serious, the stories behind the commonplaces are intended for general readers, and they do entertain with drama, pathos, and occasional farce. The presentation is chatty and jocular, but sometimes sliding to glib and even snide. In a work spanning so many disciplines, specialists will of course find gaps and distortions. Overall, the picture of scientific and technical advance that emerges is extraordinarily human: opportunistic but by no means random, subject to foibles but by no means arbitrary. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers; lower- and upper-division undergraduates; faculty. D. Bantz University of Alaska

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Lapses, Sources, and Acknowledgmentsp. xv
I. The Domain of Physics and Astronomyp. 1
1. The Mafia Invents the Barometerp. 5
2. The Riddle of the Sphinx: Thomas Young's Experimentp. 12
3. Joseph Henry and the (Near) Discovery of (Nearly) Everythingp. 24
4. Neptune: The Greatest Triumph in the History of Astronomy, or the Greatest Fluke?p. 35
5. Invisible Light: The Discovery of Radioactivityp. 46
6. Light, Ether, Corpuscles, and Charge: The Electronp. 53
7. Einstein's Miraculous Year (and a Few Others)p. 64
8. What Did the Eclipse Expedition Really Show? And Other Tales of General Relativityp. 77
9. Two Quantum Tales: Bohr and Hydrogen, Dirac and the Positronp. 88
10. A Third Quantum Tale: Southpaw Electrons and Discounted Luncheonsp. 98
II. The Domain of Technologyp. 105
11. What Hath God Wrought? Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Samuel Morse, and the Telegraphp. 113
12. Fiat Lux: Edison, the Incandescent Bulb, and a Few Other Mattersp. 127
13. "Magna Est Veritas et Praevalet": The Telephonep. 137
14. A Babble of Incoherence: The Wireless Telegraph, a.k.a. Radiop. 153
15. Mind-Destroying Rays: Televisionp. 168
16. Plausibility: The Invention of Secret Electronic Communicationp. 179
III. The Domain of Chemistry and Biologyp. 193
17. The Evolution of Evolution: Erasmus, Charles, Gregor, and Ronaldp. 203
18. Dreams with Open Eyes: Kekule, Benzene, and Loschmidtp. 216
19. Chance, Good and Bad: Penicillinp. 224
IV. The Domain of Mathematics: Closed for Renovationp. 233
References and Notesp. 237
Indexp. 257