When Science Goes Wrong
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Brilliant scientific successes have helped shape our world, and are always celebrated. However, for every victory, there are no doubt numerous little-known blunders. Neuroscientist Simon LeVay brings together a collection of fascinating, yet shocking, stories of failure from recent scientific history in When Science Goes Wrong.
From the fields of forensics and microbiology to nuclear physics and meteorology, in When Science Goes Wrong LeVay shares twelve true essays illustrating a variety of ways in which the scientific process can go awry. Failures, disasters and other negative outcomes of science can result not only from bad luck, but from causes including failure to follow appropriate procedures and heed warnings, ethical breaches, quick pressure to obtain results, and even fraud. Often, as LeVay notes, the greatest opportunity for notable mishaps occurs when science serves human ends. LeVay shares these examples:
To counteract the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease, a patient undergoes cutting-edge brain surgery using fetal transplants, and is later found to have hair and cartilage growing inside his brain. In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft is lost due to an error in calculation, only months after the agency adopts a policy of “Faster, Better, Cheaper.”Britain’s Bracknell weather forecasting team predicts two possible outcomes for a potentially violent system, but is pressured into releasing a ‘milder’ forecast. The BBC’s top weatherman reports there is “no hurricane”, while later the storm hits, devastating southeast England. Ignoring signals of an imminent eruption, scientists decide to lead a party to hike into the crater of a dormant volcano in Columbia, causing injury and death.
When Science Goes Wrong provides a compelling glimpse into human ambition in scientific pursuit.
From Publishers Weekly
© Publishers Weekly
When I first picked up this book I immediately went to Goodreads to see what other people thought. One of the biggest complaints is that it was too “sciency” or technical, which baffled me because it’s about science going wrong. That’s right – science. Of course it is going to have some scientific jargon! A chapter about hurricanes would be incomplete without a mention of the Coriolis effect, so I didn’t factor these complaints into my decision to read it. But while most of the scientific sections were about things I learned in high school, there were parts of the book that were really heavy on the technical terms. To be fair, they were necessary to understanding how and why things went wrong, but I did find myself skimming over the chapters about engineering and chemistry.
Not that that detracted from the book whatsoever. In the end, morbid curiosity and extremely approachable writing by Simon LeVay propelled me through the book. If you had asked me a week ago whether I thought human experiments were actually happening with catastrophic implications, I would have said no. Between the FDA, the review boards, and the internet, there couldn’t possibly be genetic testing that resulted in an ear bone growing in someone’s brain or blatantly ignoring FDA regulations, right?
Wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales From the Dark Side of Discovery by Simon LeVay (who is interesting all on his own – check out his page) proves that these things are still happening and it kind of freaked me out. I should mention from the get-go that the title can be interpreted in two ways – one is that the science itself went wrong and the other is that science as a field has gone wrong. This book is more about the latter and focuses predominantly on human error or lack of information rather than failed science.