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Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa ✸ xi Preface Stories about Albert Einstein range widely: countless writers claim that he was a genius while others claim that he had a learning disability; some portray him as a saintly sufferer for humanity who wanted to read the mind of God, while others portray him as a bohemian opportunist or an atheist. In 1949, Einstein complained:“There have already been published by the bucketsful such brazen lies and utter fictions about me that I would have gone to my grave long ago if I had let myself pay attention to them.”1 We tend to imagine scientists as gifted prodigies, lonesome heroes or martyrs, saints or sinners. Their stories acquire the shapes of myths. Giordano Bruno and Galileo appear as noble martyrs. Copernicus, Kepler , and Newton loom as marble giants in a pantheon. Some biologists invoke Darwin as a patron saint, quoting him word for word. Scientists working on eugenics appear to be a deadly sect. Many posters portray the old Einstein as an inspirational holy man. In the newest bestselling biography of Einstein (#1 New York Times Best Seller), by Walter Isaacson, I find the following words in the first seven pages: tidings, halo, brilliance, genius, faith, testament, genius, miraculous, miracle, glory, reverential, faith, God, cult, genius, canonized , secular saint, halo, genius, aura, priest-like, glories, inspiring, brilliance , guardian angel, reverence, and “usher in the modern age.”2 Such language is typical, it helps to win readers, but is it necessary? Hype is not distinctive of science, it is the common ancient currency by which we tell stories of heroes and miracles. I don’t want to insinuate that I dislike Isaacson’s book, that’s not what I mean; it’s a rich biography, well worth reading. But even great writers portray the history of science with mythical tones, as if success were a matter of destiny, such as in claims that Newton was born the year Galileo died or that the young Einstein “would become” one of the greatest physicists of all time. Many writers xi echo traditional stories rather than dig up documentary facts, interpreting bits of evidence to match conjectures rather than to test them. Consciously or not, writers inflate tales to sell books. As rightly noted by Jürgen Neffe, another good biographer of Einstein,“speculations evolve into anecdotes that are then proliferated in book-length studies.”3 Can we write history without mythical exaggerations? Einstein did not want to be worshipped; he repudiated how people exaggerated his contributions . Likewise, Darwin felt mortified by overblown praise, and I think Pythagoras would be stunned by what writers have made of him. A tension exists between the need to fairly describe the past and the craving to bridge gaps, to conjecture. It is not exclusive to popular books, it also appears in academic writing. Some historians portray speculations as secure findings. Other historians later deny such conjectures as unwarranted. But often they replace the old guesswork with new speculations ,presented again as solid findings.Moreover,the ground that each historian tries to cover is often broad, so errors creep in wherever one relies on common knowledge and trusts other writers’ words. It takes much work to authenticate some common hearsay; it takes more work to falsify, and some conjectures are too seductive to resist.4 Lately, some good writers of popular science have sought help from historians to check their claims.For example,while editing his Short History of Nearly Everything, the acclaimed author Bill Bryson, having received corrections and comments from historians, increasingly surmised the extent to which “inky embarrassments” might lurk in the pages of his book.5 It became a best seller nonetheless, and to Bryson’s credit, some critics were frustrated to not find many inaccuracies in his book. Still, many teachers and writers ignore the findings of historians. It is comparable to the degree to which most professional historians, in turn, print no comment on how some authors misrepresent history. Why do exaggerations and guesswork circulate more than any fair accounting of evidence? Is truth less interesting? No, the problem is that most specialists aim their work at a small group of peers.Yet truths are so much more attractive than myths that specialists spend thousands of hours absorbed in efforts to illuminate the past. But some of us should challenge misxii ✸ Preface conceptions in order to delineate legends from substantive findings that are also fascinating. This book analyzes several famous topics in...


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