Everything's Relative is a tour of what author Tony Rothman refers to as "The Contemporary Panopticon of Present and Past Concepts." He warns us in the preface:
"This book is an amateur's stroll through the history of science. It is not a serious book."
(After seeing the sentence "Whatever." used twice within the first dozen pages, I was beginning to think the same thing.) But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is not a wholly serious book. Rothman writes with a style reminiscent of P. J. O'Rourke and Tom Robbins. But it is not entirely a work of frivolity. He recounts several stories from the history of science (such as Edison inventing the light bulb, Morse inventing the telegraph, Fleming discovering penicillin, Darwin coming up with the theory of evolution) and augments them with "antistories," a sort of (small) challenge to the status quo. The reason for his antistories: he seeks to redistribute the credit of scientific discovery, recognizing that such discovery is more continuous than discrete. Rarely are discoveries isolated and unique: they often occur simultaneously and blend with (or flow from) the work of predecessors.
The table of contents gives a list of the exhibits from his "Panopticon" that he deems worthy of a closer look.
I. Domain of Physics and Astronomy
- Chapter 1 The Mafia Invents the Barometer
- Chapter 2 The Riddle of the Sphinx: Thomas Young's Experiment
- Chapter 3 Joseph Henry and the (Near) Discovery of (Nearly) Everything
- Chapter 4 Neptune: The Greatest Triumph in the History of Astronomy, or the Greatest Fluke?
- Chapter 5 Invisible Light: The Discovery of Radioactivity
- Chapter 6 Light, Ether, Corpuscles, and Charge: The Electron
- Chapter 7 Einstein's Miraculous Year (and a Few Others)
- Chapter 8 What Did the Eclipse Expedition Really Show? And Other Tales of General Relativity
- Chapter 9 Two Quantum Tales: Bohr and Hydrogen, Dirac and the Positron
- Chapter 10 A Third Quantum Tale: Southpaw Electrons and Discounted Luncheons
Chapter 3 is an homage to one of the greatest scientific minds that most people haven't heard of. It is also a (true) fable, with a familiar moral: "You snooze, you lose." Chapter 4 pays tribute to science (with its awesome predictive power), while not painting such a flattering portrait of the scientists who wield its power. And, of special interest to those of us of the mathematical persuasion, Chapter 7 mentions how close we were to having Poincare's theory of relativity.
II. The Domain of Technology
- Chapter 11. What Hath God Wrought? Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Samuel Morse and the Telegraph
- Chapter 12. Fiat Lux: Edison, the Incandescent Bulb, and a Few Other Matters
- Chapter 13. "Magna est Veritas et Praevalet": The Telephone
- Chapter 14. A Babble of Incoherence: The Wireless Telegraph, a.k.a. Radio
- Chapter 15. Mind Destroying Rays: Television
- Chapter 16. Plausibility: The Invention of Secret Electronic Communication
This particular domain of the Panopticon shows the human side of technology — and a less-than-appealing side of human nature. The tales of the invention of the telegraph (with Samuel Morse's poor behavior), the incandescent bulb (who really invented it?), the telephone (which launched over 600 lawsuits as several people laid claim to creating the technology needed for it to work), the radio (the race wasn't who invented it first, but rather, who patented it first?), television (which seems to have several different inventors: one Russian, one British, one Japanese…), and secret communication (with the unlikely contribution of "ultramodern" musician George Antheil and actress Hedy Lamarr). Rothman summarizes the activities in this domain beautifully:
"Before the finish, there is inspiration, trial and error, incremental progress, and misunderstandings. All are required to carry the race forward, and all should be respected."
III. Domain of Chemistry and Biology
- Chapter 17. The Evolution of Evolution: Erasmus, Charles, Gregor and Ronald
- Chapter 18. Dreams With Open Eyes: Kekulé, Benzene, and Loschmidt
- Chapter 19. Chance, Good and Bad: Penicillin
This domain gives the lesser known stories of the development of ideas like evolution (we all know the idea originated with Darwin… but do we know which Darwin?), organic chemistry, and penicillin.
Finally, the domain that we're really interested in.
IV. Domain of Mathematics
Although the exhibit for mathematics is closed, Rothman does mention some of the treasures to be found in this part of the Panopticon: the story/myth of why there is no Nobel prize for mathematics, the story of Gauss' finding the sum of the first one hundred positive integers, and the story of Galois. (Rothman is the author of a well-known article on Galois.)
Now, who is this book for? That's a tough call. Although Rothman is a physicist, the science is kept to a minimum, so the audience for this book is fairly general. But that doesn't necessarily mean that just anyone will enjoy it. If you don't mind seeing the status quo challenged, then you may very well enjoy this book. (If you smile when you hear the phrase, "Sacred cows make the best hamburgers," then you may be part of this audience.) As Rothman says, "The creak of falling idols is loud, as are the shouts of those being crushed beneath them." If you're one of the ones who may get crushed, you might not like this book, perhaps rejecting it as historical revisionism. (Personally, I still don't know which camp I fall in.) While the "antistories" here are entertaining, the pictures they paint aren't always flattering. Caveat lector … let the reader beware.
Donald L. Vestal is Associate Professor of Mathematics at Missouri Western State College. His interests include number theory, combinatorics, and a deep admiration for the crime-fighting efforts of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.