Anecdotes, Astronomy and Extraterrestrial Life

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 26, 2003 | Go to article overview

Anecdotes, Astronomy and Extraterrestrial Life


Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In his introduction to Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, $28, 290 pages), Walter Gratzer laments that, unlike the case with famous literary and historical notables, about whom there are "compilations without number" of authentic stories, anecdotes about scientists "often exist only in the tribal consciousness and pass through the generations by word of mouth." In an attempt to redress this balance, Mr. Gratzer, a professor of biophysics at King's College of the University of London and frequent book reviewer for the scientific weekly Nature, assembled the stories that make up his book, which he hopes "may cast a flickering light on the sociology and the history of science."

The collection fulfills that modest hope, but considered as a book, the 181 pieces it contains are closer to Winston Churchill's famous pudding that lacked a theme. The anecdotes are arranged neither chronologically, alphabetically, by field of science, nor in any systematic manner I could discern. Some of the best anecdotes in the book are thrown away in a line or two in the introduction, while Mr. Gratzer spends so much time explaining the subject matter and the historical background of others - an endeavor which he performs masterfully - that they can scarcely be called anecdotes. Of the genuine anecdotes, some are very well known, some are mildly amusing, and too many are just plain boring.

The book does contain some good stories. Perhaps the best is an account by Jeremy Bernstein of one of the last lectures delivered by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. The topic was a supposedly fundamental theory Pauli had derived together with Werner Heisenberg, and the lecture ended with Pauli and Niels Bohr chasing each other around the table, with Bohr asserting repeatedly that the theory "is not crazy enough" to be correct, and Pauli rejoining each time, "It is crazy enough."

* * *

One cannot imagine a similar exchange between the serious 19th-century fellows whose work is described by Bill and Merri Sue Carter in Latitude: How American Astronomers Solved the Mystery of Variation (Naval Institute Press, $24, 272 pages). The authors, a father-and-daughter team who are both professional astronomers, have delved into a little-known today chapter in the history of science that put American astronomers on the world map.

Seth Carlo Chandler (1846-1913) was an actuary who worked for life insurance companies in New York and Boston. He had neither a college degree nor a formal scientific education, but in his spare time, he was a serious astronomer who was the first person to accurately demonstrate that slight variations in the observed motions of astronomical bodies reflected wobbles in the earth's rotation that caused a periodic variation of the astronomical latitude (defined by the altitude of the celestial pole) measured from points on the earth's surface.

This discovery, which had evaded the greatest figures in mathematics and astronomy, came as a result of painstaking mathematical analysis of thousands of observations taken by himself and others, all performed by hand long before the invention of the electronic computer.

Chandler's father, a successful Boston businessman, was unencumbered by a college degree, and saw no reason why his son needed one. While still a student at Boston English High School, Seth Jr.'s mathematical skills won him a job as a computational assistant to Benjamin Pierce, a leading mathematician of the era, at the Harvard College Observatory.

After Chandler graduated from high school, he was appointed private assistant to Benjamin Apthorp Gould, Jr., an American astronomer who had earned a PhD from the University of G|ttingen under Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the all-time mathematical greats. When Chandler was 18, Gould found him a job with the US Coast Survey, where he traveled widely and learned many astronomical and scientific research skills. …

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