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Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers: Tales of Bitter Rivalry That Fueled the Advancement of Science and Technology [Hardcover]

Michael White
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 20, 2001 0380977540 978-0380977543 1
When we consider the Herculean figures on the long road to reason and the contributions they have made to our modern worldview, it is only natural to wonder what drove them, what led them to discover. Indeed, it makes us question the very meaning of discovery itself. In so many ways scientists and the natural philosophers who preceded them have much in common with artists, musicians, writers -- creators, forward thinkers and, often, rivals.

Rivalry is a reflection of humanity and as human culture has changed, so too has the guise of rivalry. In simpler times, scientists pitted their wits to reveal nature and sometimes also to expose what they believe to be falsity in their competitors. As science became public property it was used by the governments who represented entire nations. Beyond the tales of personal bitterness of some scientific rivalry we must consider what comes from these battlefields. And it seems the overwhelming effect has been to propel science forward. Be it a priority race, nationalistic fervor, personal hatred, or any combination of these, competition has done much to advance our understanding of the universe.

Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers covers a long history of scientific rivalry, and encompasses a diverse collection of disciplines and rivalries (personal, national, and industrial). Whatever form it takes and however it may be transmogrified, rivalry exists in every lab, in every corner of the world, and in every age. It has spurred great minds on to world-altering breakthroughs in science and technology; in Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers, Michael White illuminates the bitterness and the beauty, the genius and the humanity behind eight such breakthroughs.

Editorial Reviews Review

Scientific discovery, observes popular science writer Michael White, hinges on argument: at the root of all investigation lies a scientist's argument with the world, conducted in order to coax out information and secrets "until ideas and observation coalesce."

White's interest, however, is on a less elevated plane. In this entertaining book, he recounts personal and professional feuds that have driven scientists to reach new heights--for, as the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, himself no stranger to rivalry, once optimistically observed, "the longer two intelligent people argue, the better their arguments become." Among the arguments that rage through White's book are Isaac Newton's hatred for Gottfried Leibniz, whose formulation of the calculus was independent of Newton's own but, Newton insisted, was a second-rate plagiarism; Richard Owen's fierce refutations of his onetime friend Charles Darwin's theories of speciation and natural selection; the personal squabbles that engulfed Francis Crick and James Watson's discovery of DNA; and a whole complex of rivalries and nasty politics that surrounded the development of the atomic bomb ("perhaps more than any other scientific endeavor in history," White writes, "the making of the atomic bomb exemplifies how pure intellect, corrupted by greed and fear, and supercharged by vast material resources, is capable of transforming the course of society"). White closes with another transforming episode, the development of the personal computer through a battle of "cyber-kings": Microsoft versus NOISE ("Netscape, Oracle, IBM, Sun ... and Everyone Else"). His book is an entertaining sidelong glance at the history of science, full of sound--and plenty of fury. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

"Scientific discovery is based upon the excitement of argument... the overwhelming effect [of which] has been to propel science forward." In several of the eight rivalries White (Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, etc.) compares in this captivating work, the competition is more than personal: the fate of nations (e.g., the Allies versus the Axis powers in the battle to develop the atom bomb) and of industry (Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse in the fight to harness electricity; Bill Gates and Microsoft versus Larry Ellison and Oracle in the struggle to dominate cyberspace) hang in the balance. While each story could stand on its own, White's skill at interweaving important themes across time and among rivalries brings the whole work together. For example, less than a century after Galileo encouraged scientific experiment and exchange, Isaac Newton stymied progress by keeping his discovery of calculus to himself. When he learned that a young German mathematician named Gottfried Leibniz had reached the same conclusions, Newton was furious. Charles Darwin, on the other hand, realized that science could only benefit from cooperation among its practitioners and from public awareness. Just before releasing his 1859 masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, to the world, Darwin befriended a young scientist named Alfred Wallace, who was also working on a theory of evolution. Together, they published the first scientific paper on the subject. Mixing intrigue, espionage and human drama, White has created an arresting narrative that should engage readers beyond fans of popular science. 15-city NPR campaign.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1 edition (February 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380977540
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380977543
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,270,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eight good stories April 11, 2001
I have reviewed Acid Tongues in the Street Cred column of Wired Magazine (April 2001, p. 218); I won't repeat my whole review, since that is available in the magazine and at Wired's online site.
I conclude that "Michael White delivers blow-by-blow accounts of the rivalries that underlay eight historical advancements, and he enriches each story with analysis, solid scientific explanation, and detailed biographies of each combatant." However, the whole never equals more than the sum of the parts. "White's principal assumption seems to be that rivalry fuels the advancement of science and technology." But he never proves the point. Edison's stubborn opposition to alternating current, for example, didn't really advance science so much as delay widespread recognition of the superior technology.
"Acid Tongues' thesis begs for a comparison of competitive and noncompetitive research, but--contrary to the book's title--we encounter no 'tranquil dreamers.'" I also have other minor quibbles, but conclude that "although Acid Tongues may not deliver an overarching argument, it does prove one thing: It's fun to read about rivalries." - Edward Samuels, author of The Illustrated Story of Copyright
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Acid Tongues is OK Science, but Boring Literature January 28, 2003
If you're really into science 'Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers' is a sufficient documentary of eight fairly substantial events in the history of science. If you're not a science aficionado then I imagine it could be a pretty tedious read. I like science very much and enjoyed the scientific theme but found author Michael White's (ex-member of the 80s synthesizer band 'Thompson Twins') writing style tepid and his thesis muddled. Aside from the author's style and thesis the eight essays, ranging from the development of calculus to the Microsoft corporation, stand on their own and, hence, possess a great deal of content. White's thesis that rivalry possibly promotes great endeavor is a tautology already implied in the essays. The mundane background given on the human subjects of these stories, although probably necessary, tends to bog down the pace of the book. As a chronicle of the development of science and technology in the western world I'd say this book is useful and worth the time spent reading it. It is written, however, with the zing of a middle school textbook. Reading it is a struggle between its richness of content and lack of literary acumen. Depending on how important these two elements are to the reader is likely a good indication of how much one would enjoy reading this book.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sloppy publishing January 23, 2002
By A Customer
What a shame that spell-check can't distinguish among a and an, their and there, misplaced commas, and then and than. I found 47 such errors in this book, and find it apalling that a name publisher never had it actually "read" before printing. Shame on them. And the title? Bears no resemblance to the subject matter or treatment. White writes very well, when his ideas make it past a rudimentary grammar check. But the book seems to be a loose collection of magazine articles, with little overriding messages. Sure, we know science has rivalries, and that scientists can be prima donnas. Anything else new here? Not much. I'd pass on this one.
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