Much Ado about (Practically) Nothing: A History of the Noble Gases
Oxford University Press, 2010
288 pp., $47.95
Much Ado About (Practically) Nothing
It's not easy writing about nothing. Despite the cheeky title, in Much Ado About (Practically) Nothing: A History of the Noble Gases, David E. Fisher does write about three somethings: how the noble gases came to be discovered, his own work with the noble gases, and—in chapter 7—a debate with Young Earth Creationist Henry Morris.
And Fisher himself is something: a professor emeritus of geological science and cosmochemistry at the University of Miami whose scientific career spans more than 50 years and includes fellowships in nuclear chemistry at Oak Ridge and Brookhaven. Along the way he has taught in the departments of physics, politics, international studies, geology, and religion at Cornell and Miami. He also found time to write nine novels and ten nonfiction books.
The first six chapters of Much Ado tell of the discovery of the noble gases and their central place in modern physics and chemistry. Fisher deftly adds the story of the early life of Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born physicist who discovered the structure of the atom. Though the opening chapters will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of physics and chemistry in the 19th and 20th centuries, Fisher retells the story well.
From chapter 8 to the end of the book, Fisher gives us a view of the noble gases centered on his own interests and research. We learn more about helium, argon, and xenon and less about neon, krypton, and radon. We hear about his colleagues, and the trials and tribulations of research. This is not exactly what the subtitle promises. "My History of the Noble Gases" would be more accurate.
But the book is no less interesting for all such quirks. In fact, after I finished reading it, I bought Fisher's A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain and was hooked by the end of the first chapter. I also ordered a copy of Isaac Asimov's 1966 book Noble Gases (Science and Discovery). I read this book during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school and have loved chemistry ever since.
And now to chapter 7: "Interlude: Helium, Argon and Creationism," in which the author tells us about his debate with Henry M. Morris at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. As I read this chapter, I felt like an observer watching Morris in frantic motion while Fisher stood still, as if he were the eye and Morris the storm. Fisher acknowledges that Morris scored points with his hallmark relentless debating style. Morris brought up potassium-argon decay as a method of determining the age of the earth, and then quoted from an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research to affirm that the method was not valid. All this was done with great fanfare. Morris ended by saying "Science has spoken," and sat down to great applause.
Through his description of the debate, Fisher made me feel I was watching Morris and the audience through his eyes: with Morris in grand form, and the audience amazed, I was motionless with Fisher under siege, as if I were standing with Custer at Little Bighorn.
But at that moment, Morris gave Fisher the floor. Unfortunately for Morris, Fisher recognized the sentence from the JGR article. He asked Morris to read the title and authors of the article. Morris read the title and then Fisher's name as one of the authors. Fisher made clear that the point of the article was, of course, the opposite of Morris' accurate but misleading quotation out of context. Fisher felt he won the debate, but five years later he heard Morris on the radio using the same argument and misquoting Fisher in exactly the same way as in the debate. The chapter ends:
[Morris] knew that those arguments were wrong, but he also knew that most of his audience would not know that. He flat-out lied to them.
What was it that Barry Goldwater was saying back in 1966? "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" I guess this also applies to lying in the service of the Lord.
Chapter 7 is not just an entertaining aside. The chapter begins, "Henry M. Morris, widely regarded as the founder of the modern creationist movement, died February 25, 2006, at the age of eighty-seven. His 1961 book The Genesis Flood, with its subtitle 'The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications,' was a cornerstone of the movement."
Some of my favorite science writers, Stephen Jay Gould and N. David Mermin to name two, have expressed considerable frustration with the tactics of creationist debaters. Mutual disrespect hardly begins to describe their respective positions. Young Earth Creationism rejects nearly all of modern science out of hand, implying that it is either wrong or involved in a giant conspiracy to deceive the world—or both. Creationists dismiss scientists as a group. Chapter 7 makes it painfully clear that science and Young Earth Creationism have no common ground for a discussion.
As for Fisher's own perspective on a life in science, his engaging account suggests that is a compound of adventure, wonder, competition, triumph, missed opportunity, and sheer luck, both good and bad.
Neil Gussman is communications manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
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