Head-to-head: when scientists do battle

1. Numero uno of calculus

Isaac Newton, born in 1643, is perhaps the most celebrated scientist of all time. He was also a notoriously terrible teacher who gave lectures to empty rooms at Cambridge, spent a large part of his life as a clandestine alchemist and wrote more about religion than science.

When he first demonstrated the use of calculus, he did so in an offhand manner, and didn’t bother to explain it for another 20 years. By the time he published on it, nearly 30 years later, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Germany had widely published his own system.

While the two men acknowledged each other’s work, an acrimonious debate about who first devised calculus ensued, mostly driven by their supporters. The English-speaking world favoured Newton, the continent Leibniz  – until evidence came to light he had altered documents to support his claim. Newton, on the other hand, provided little to no proof of his claim, other than his say-so.

For all the bitterness, modern historians agree the two most likely came to calculus independently.

2. Phlogiston vs oxygen

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, born in France in 1743, is a father of modern chemistry. He was not, however, the father of fizzy drinks. That honour goes to his contemporary, Joseph Priestley.

Priestley, born in England in 1733, invented soda water as a result of his experiments with gases (or as he put it, “different kinds of air”). His experiments, which included asphyxiating mice, did not free him from the spurious belief in ‘phlogiston’ – a substance conjectured in the 17th century to be released into the air during combustion. He famously claimed to have experimentally produced ‘dephlogisticated’ air, which could absorb more phlogiston and thus encourage combustion. 

In 1774 Priestley demonstrated this to Lavoisier, who was initially impressed by the results but ultimately rejected this phlogiston nonsense. He called Priestley’s dephlogisticated air ‘oxygen’, arguing that a burning substance absorbed oxygen from the air, rather than producing phlogiston. Priestly refused to accept this, despite ample evidence. His refusal led to his isolation in the scientific community and the unfortunate moniker of Dr Phlogiston.

French biologist georges leopold chretien frederic dagobert cuvier; french naturalist étienne geoffroy saint-hilaire.
French biologist Georges Leopold Chretien Frederic Dagobert Cuvier; French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images (Cuvier), Kean Collection / Getty Images (Saint-Hilaire)

3. Biological structure and function

One of the first chapters of truly modern biology featured a feud between French comparative anatomists Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier.

In 1793, at age 22, Geoffroy was made professor of zoology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He soon hired another wunderkind, Cuvier. They worked together for most of their lives, and got along famously – until Cuvier was admitted to the Académie des Sciences, an honour not extended to Geoffroy for another 12 years. It triggered a falling out, both personal and scientific.

Their main bone of contention was an actual bone, called the hyoid. In howler monkeys, as in other primates, it is located at the base of the jaw. Cuvier believed God gave the monkeys a hyoid just the right shape to enable them to howl. Geoffroy thought the monkey hyoid had adapted to facilitate howling.

Most contemporary observers declared Cuvier’s position right, probably because he was an expert networker. Now Geoffroy is recognised as the more important precursor of evolutionary thinking.

4. Existence of atoms

Because most people know that atomic theory began with the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus, we tend to overlook how contested this idea was until the early 20th century.

Ludwig Boltzmann (born in 1844) was an Austrian physicist famous for explaining how the properties of atoms lead to the macro-scale properties of matter. Although his work is now considered seminal in thermodynamics, he faced fierce opposition from physicists Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach, who viewed atoms as nothing but a theoretical construct and thought it time to replace “the old atomic-mechanistic world picture”. In 1904, at a conference attended by many of the big-name physicists of the day, including Boltzmann and his anti-atom nemeses, there was a feeling Ostwald and Mach won the day, leaving the atom on the outs.

Boltzmann hanged himself in 1906. He had what we would now call bipolar disorder, but some speculate his suicide was related to the treatment of atomic theory. Historian Stephen Brush ranks his suicide “as one of the great tragedies in the history of science”.

German meteorologist and explorer dr alfred lothar wegener.
German meteorologist and explorer Dr Alfred Lothar Wegener.
Austrian Archives (S) / Imagno / Getty Images

5. Continental drift

While science is based in the rough and tumble of peer review and the contest of ideas, Alfred Wegener could have been forgiven for feeling a bit persecuted.

The German, born in 1880, was a meteorologist, polar researcher and sometime geologist who became intrigued by the similarity between fossils on either side of the Atlantic and the way the shapes of the continents appeared to fit together rather neatly. In 1915 he put forward a new theory arguing the continents had once been joined together in one massive land mass. He called it ‘Kontinentalverschiebung’. We call it continental drift.

At the time most scientists ignored his fanciful theory. One group took things even further after reading a poorly translated edition of Wegener’s work that made him sound a bit too imperious for their liking. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists organised an entire conference for the sole purpose of rubbishing his theory.

Nonetheless, the German was eventually vindicated and his work became the basis for the current scientific consensus on plate tectonics.

6. The politics of sociobiology

The super-heated feud between American biologists Edward O. Wilson and Richard Lewontin in the 1970s was made worse by Lewontin’s office being directly above Wilson’s. Both worked at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Wilson was the curator of entomology (and is famous for his work on ants). Lewontin was a professor of biology (a population geneticist specialising in the application of game theory to evolution).

Wilson put forward a theory called ‘sociobiology’, which he defined as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour”. The theory was poorly received by some as it seemed to imply a biological justification of certain political arrangements and social inequalities. Lewontin, whose views were influenced by Marxism, went to town on Wilson’s ideas in every forum he could find, slamming the theory as racist, sexist and capitalist.

Wilson simply noted that Marxism was a “wonderful theory, wrong species”, implying communism might work fine for ants but not for humans. That just made Lewontin madder.

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