The Dream of Scientific Brotherhood

Growing up as a child in England, I absorbed at an early age the notion that different countries had different skills. The Germans had Bach and Beethoven, the Spanish had Velázquez and El Greco, the French had Monet and Gauguin, and we had Newton and Darwin. Science was the thing the English were good at. This notion was reinforced when I began to read children’s books of that period, glorifying the achievements of our national heroes, Faraday and Maxwell and Rutherford.

Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealander who had discovered the atomic nucleus and created the science that came to be called nuclear physics, was then at the height of his fame. Although he had immigrated from New Zealand, Rutherford became more English than the English. He spoke for England in a famous statement contrasting the Continental European style with the English style in science: they “play games with their symbols, but we, in the Cavendish, turn out the real solid facts of Nature.” The French and Germans were doing calculations with the abstract mathematical equations of quantum theory, while Rutherford was banging one nucleus against another and transmuting nitrogen into oxygen. English children learned to be proud of Rutherford, just as we were proud of our military heroes Nelson and Wellington who had beaten Napoleon. Patriotic pride of this sort is in some ways healthy. It encourages children to be ambitious and to tackle big problems. But it is harmful when it leads them to believe that they have a natural right to rule the world.

I still remember some of the patriotic poems that I had to learn by heart and recite as a seven-year-old:

Of Nelson and the North
Sing the glorious day’s renown,
When to battle fierce came forth
All the might of Denmark’s crown.

The battle that Nelson fought in the harbor of Copenhagen was specially famous because his commanding officer put up a flag signal ordering him to cease fire. Nelson pointed his telescope at the flag signal and looked through it with his blind eye. Since he did not see the flag, he continued the battle and won a glorious victory. But even a seven-year-old understands that Nelson’s defeat of the Danes at Copenhagen was not as glorious as his defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar four years later. Even a seven-year-old may feel some sympathy for the defeated Danes, and may question whether Nelson’s undoubted bravery and brilliance gave him the right to bombard their homes. I recently visited a tavern in Copenhagen where the tourist is proudly informed that this is one of the few buildings along the waterfront that were not demolished by Nelson’s guns. The collateral damage resulting from his victory is not forgotten.

John Gribbin’s book The Fellowship belongs to the harmless kind of patriotic literature. It is a portrait gallery displaying a group of remarkable characters who made important contributions to the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century. Each of…

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