Book Review

Scerri, E. R. (2016). A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 228 pages. ISBN: 9780190232993, $29.95 (Amazon)

For Eric Scerri, the author of the book, A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science, the number seven seems magical. This new book follows in the steps of his previous one, A Tale of Seven Elements (2013, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Scerri is a philosopher and historian of science. The readers of the Bulletin may remember his interview, A philosopher’s view on the periodic table of the elements and its significance: Interview with Eric Scerri, and the review of his book A Tale of Seven Elements. In his new work, Scerri examines the life and contributions of seven scientists considered by science historians as being marginal or whose views were looked upon as mistaken. These little- known scientists (John Nicholson, Anton van den Broek, Richard Abbeg, Charles Bury, John D. Main Smith, Edmund Stoner, and Charles Janet) were either physicists or chemists (or both). Their contributions are related to the periodic table of the elements, and more specifically, to the atomic number and chemical bonding. Although their names are not familiar, except to some historians of science, these scientists paved the road to important discoveries.

Scerri disagrees with historians and philosophers of science such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn who view scientific progress as a sequence of discretionary steps and revolutionary breaks. Scerri is proposing an alternative philosophy of science as “a collective enterprise… in which many individuals, some significant, others far less so, make contributions which are taken up by countless other scientists in the shared growth of the story of scientific knowledge.” He compares science to a giant living organism on a Darwinian-type gradual development path, which includes a systematic advance of scientific knowledge through both the major and minor figures in science, through trials and errors. According to this evolutionary philosophy, the fighting and competition between individual scientists resembles the struggle among different biological species for survival. In this fight, there are no winners or losers, no abrupt scientific revolutions. There are “worker-bee-like scientists who all contribute to the overall progress.” In science, says Scerri, marginal and intermediate figures are no less important than the “star” scientists.

John Nicholson, one of the main “heroes” in the book, is one of such less known but pivotal figures. He was an established mathematical physicist, first at Cambridge and then in King’s College, London. Nicholson used astronomical data to develop his planetary model of the atom. His work is of major historical significance, because of the role he played in the revolution in physics during the early 20th century. Figures such as Nicholson are just as important as the major ones such as Niels Bohr, who had noticed the contributions of Nicholson before he presented his famous paper announcing his model of the atom. Nicholson’s theory influenced the thinking of scientists in the development of the quantum theory of atoms and molecules.

Anton van den Broek, who was a lawyer and never held an academic appointment, was the first to discuss the key concept of atomic number, which characterizes each of the known chemical elements, even those that were not yet discovered. Van den Broek looked at the periodic table as a whole, taking into account the relationships between the elements. This was a different perspective from the one viewed by the physicists, who were focusing on just one or two elements or a specific property of an element.

Richard Abegg, a student of Nernst, started as an organic chemist, but then switched to physical chemistry. He was greatly influenced by his mentors Arrhenius, van’t Hoff, and Ostwald. Abegg was one of the first to see the role that electrons play in chemical bonding. His work provided “a missing link” between the work of Mendeleev on valency and G. N. Lewis’s novel ideas on chemical bonding in terms of number of electrons.

Charles Bury, whose contributions remained unknown to chemists, worked in a provincial university in Wales. Pursuing research at the border of chemistry and physics, he contributed to the elucidation of electronic configurations of the atoms of the elements. Bury criticized Langmuir for focusing on the chemical behavior of only some of the elements, and not looking at all of them. He succeeded in coming to a better and more complete set of electron arrangements that provided an improved model of the periodic table of the elements

Although John D. Main Smith, a chemist from the University of Birmingham in the UK, published a comprehensive book, Chemistry and Atomic Structure, his work remained mostly unknown. The reason for that is that he published his papers in an obscure journal (Chemistry & Industry), a publication that did not have much of an influence on chemists and physicists. Main Smith courageously took on Niels Bohr, a powerful scientist, and proposed some improved electronic arrangements.

Another lesser-known scientist, Edmund Stoner, independently discovered the arrangements obtained by Main Smith, and contributed to the understanding of the physics of the atom and the atomic spectra. Stoner’s work provided Wolfgang Pauli with a clue in solving a difficult problem when developing his idea of the Exclusion Principle.

Charles Janet was a fascinating figure, “a Renaissance Man,” whose diverse interests took him to explore many different disciplines, including geology, entomology, biology, and chemistry. In addition to his scientific accomplishments, he also made significant contributions to world literature. Janet was 78 when he decided to turn to chemistry. His work led to renewed interest into the theoretical foundations of the periodic system of the elements. Janet developed an interesting model of the periodic system that is coherent with quantum mechanics. His so-called “left-step table,” admired by Scerri, resembles a staircase arising from left to right, unlike the more uneven format used to present the periodic table.

Born in Paris and a graduate of the Sorbonne, Janet’s first research interests were devoted to geology. He later turned to studying insects, particularly bees and ants, a topic on which he continued to publish throughout his life. Janet also studied freshwater algae and assembled a fossil collection with over 50,000 items that he personally classified into 400 species. Janet also had many other interests, which included making electrical inventions, icebox structures, and studying the housing conditions of early 20th-century French laborers. One of his major inventions was an artificial nest, used by biologists to observe the social behavior of ants.

At some point in his life, Janet served as director of La Brosserie Dupont, a large commercial enterprise in the l”Oise district of France, which employed 1,000 workers. His 54-room mansion included a science library that was also home to an enormous fossil collection. Scerri suggested that the fact that Janet had spread his efforts in so many different directions contributed to his lack of recognition.

The scientists discussed in this book share a common fate: they contributed to the overall development of different branches of physical science, but were forgotten or remained unknown. Their work served as a foundation for the work of others. Their contributions are the missing links in the evolution of modern atomic theory. Scerri looks at scientific progress as a development of a giant organism that is “constantly evolving, ‘trying out’ new variations and letting nature favor one or the other path of biological evolution.”

In this book, Scerri discusses the reasons why the contributions of these scientists were either neglected or downplayed. In some cases, it was the perspective that scientists at that time had on the periodic table of the elements, depending on whether they were looking at it from the point of view of physics or chemistry. The small intermediate steps in science are often ignored, and “the development of science appears to have been as a series of spectacular leaps and the architects of success in theories take on the mantle of superheroes with almost magical powers…” As Scerri says, “The more correct picture is one of incremental steps occurring almost imperceptibly and frequently carried out by unknown individuals. The history of science proceeds via evolution in which dozens of small players contribute, and not via revolutions fashioned by the few and famous.”

Scerri admits his book is radical. It presents “scientific development as an impersonal phenomenon, in which personalities, egos, or who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ look irrelevant. What is important is the progress made by scientists as a community.” This book brings our attention to an aspect of science that is often obscured by human desire to pay attention only to the “stars,” and it is very much worth reading.

Svetla Baykoucheva
University of Maryland College Park
sbaykouc@umd.edu