- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

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 Gttingen 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.
In 1870, Chandler married, left the Coast Survey and became an insurance company actuary, moving back to Boston six years later. A few years later, he resumed his active interest in astronomy in his spare time, observing, writing papers and inventing several instruments designed to assist in the precise determination of time and latitude. Gould appointed him associate editor of the Astronomical Journal, the premier American astronomical journal Gould had founded, and Chandler became the editor after Gould's death.
In the 1880s, Chandler began making a series of precise measurements of the latitude of the Harvard Observatory, noting that the results varied systematically with the date of the measurement, with an average period of about 14 months, some 40 percent larger than the theoretical value that had been calculated by mathematicians based on the earth's not being a perfect rotating sphere.
Chandler, ignorant of the theory involved, developed an empirical formula that described the variation he had observed as the combination of two separate periodic motions. He went on to confirm his formula by analyzing observations made by others, eventually including 45 different series of observations by 17 observatories around the world, over 33,000 individual observations in all. Chandler carried out this astounding calculational effort with the help of two young coeds at Boston University.
Chandler continued this work, suggesting that further small variations in latitude were due to seasonal factors including differing rates of annual snowfall and growth of foliage, and meteorological phenomena affecting the earth's rate of spin. He also made the daring prediction that the combination of two motions he had found should sometimes result in a sudden temporary change in the rate of change of latitude. Astronomers expect to test this prediction using satellite observations in the next decade, a century after Chandler's death.
The Carters' rendition of this forgotten history keeps the lay reader interested, despite the technical complexity of the subject. Chandler's life and work is put in the context of the development of American science in the 19th century, with informative brief biographies of the other major figures with whom he collaborated and, on occasion, disagreed.

The freedom to disagree, as long as the disagreement can be formulated rationally, lies at the heart of science, and Stephen Webb provides a fascinating guide to the rousing scientific debate over the existence of extraterrestrial life in Where Is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (Copernicus, $27.50, 304 pages).
The question he discusses was first formulated by Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who built the first nuclear reactor. In 1950, Fermi was at lunch with three of his colleagues discussing the possible existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. After a rapid series of mental calculations, Fermi concluded that if intelligent extraterrestrials did exist, they should have long since visited earth, or provided us with evidence of their existence. "Where is everybody?" he asked. Mr. Webb's book is a near-encyclopedic compilation of 50 possible answers to that question.
Scientific speculation on the frequency of extraterrestrial life is based on an equation formulated by the astronomer Frank Drake in 1961. The equation says that the number of communicating extraterrestrial civilizations is the product of a series of factors. The factors include the rate at which stars form, how many have planetary systems, what fraction of those planets have environments suitable for life, what fraction of those actually develop life, what fraction of that life is intelligent enough to develop interstellar communication, and how many years they will spend communicating.
Unfortunately, none of these probabilistic factors are known, and most of them are totally speculative, so that the final result is anyone's guess. In the most basic terms. Mt. Webb's 50 answers assume different values for various of these factors to explain why it is that either no extraterrestrial intelligence or, if there is an ET out there somewhere, why he has not yet called us.
The reader of the book will get a very broad education is many basic fields of science, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology and even psychology. Webb is clear, entertaining and fair to every one of the 50 opinions, and even gives his own solution in a concluding chapter. My only quibble is the somewhat eccentric and inconvenient system of notes, with 238 numbered endnotes expanding on the discussion, which in turn refer the reader to a further 218 bibliographical references.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear stragegy to social policy.


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