Findings: Hidden Stories in First-Hand Accounts Of Scientific Discovery

Lulox Books, 2005

‘this minute, but always sympathetic, dissection ... really brings these seminal papers and their authors to life in a startling way’ Oliver Sacks
‘a beady-eyed study’ Gerard McBurney, Guardian
‘Once in a while a book comes along that does something refreshingly different - and that’s the case with Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s Findings ... a fascinating insight into the minds of some key figures in 20th century science ... a superb resource’
‘Well worth tackling ... a clear history of science’ Roy Herbert, New Scientist
‘For anyone who has never studied a scientific paper (or, for that matter, appreciated the adventure of science), this book is "must have"’ School Science Review

One of the things people liked most in my book, The Most Beautiful Molecule, was the blow-by-blow analysis of the paper announcing the discovery of the molecule (called buckminsterfullerene or carbon-60). Though supposedly cold and technical, each sentence of the paper upon close reading revealed a far more human face of science. Here, suddenly, were all the things that the model scientific account is supposed to omit: the serendipity of the discovery, the glee of the discoverers, their moments of sport, the jabs at their rivals; all right there in the text.

Well, I thought, if it worked once, it should work again. So Findings takes a key paper from each decade of the 20th century, from quantum theory to the much hyped ‘discovery’ of fossil life on Mars (see the contents for the ones in between), and subjects them to the same treatment.

I should say here and now that this is a practical and empirical project, not an academic or theoretical one. There are scholars in the humanities and social sciences who talk about the possibility of this sort of analysis, but never seem to get round to doing it (they know who they are). But here it is, ten times over. I have got my hands dirty, but I’ve come up with some truffles - enmities and cabals, rivalries and jealousies, nationalism, gender bias, denial in the face of unwanted evidence, desperate efforts to construct a hypothesis on too little data, and some spectacular own goals.

See which major 20th century scientific breakthroughs I analyse in the contents