History Department
History Department

Historian Al Martínez to speak and sign copies of his third book at BookPeople, June 8

Tue, June 7, 2011
Prof. Al Martínez
Prof. Al Martínez

Associate Professor Alberto Martínez will speak and sign copies of Science Secrets at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar in Austin.

Science Secrets discusses various myths and myth-like stories about the sciences: the alchemists' quest for the Philosophers' Stone, that the Catholic Inquisition killed Giordano Bruno for believing in Copernicus, that Karl Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles Darwin, that Einstein's first wife secretly contributed to his theories, that Newton's apple tree is still alive, and more.

Physics textbooks claim, for example, that "In 1897, J.J. Thomson discovered the electron." But in Science Secrets, Martínez explains that prior to 1897 multiple physicists already knew, and had good experimental evidence to know, that electricity consists of subatomic particles that are negatively charged. But the book is about more than myth-busting.

Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin's Finches, Einstein's Wife, and Other Myths

Martínez explains:

"Of course, it's important to find out what really happened and what didn't. But more than that, I wanted to find out: How do these mythical stories evolve?

"By tracing this process we can learn what is it that writers do that lead to these stories. We might imagine that what happens is that an original accurate account, by an authoritative historian, becomes gradually misrepresented by other writers, when they don't echo information accurately. But instead, what I found is that authoritative scholars fuel the process.

"Prominent historians and scientists, as well as famous writers, are prone to mixing facts with conjectures. For example, regarding the story that Galileo dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the prestigious editor of his collected works, Antonio Favaro, claimed that Galileo's last secretary and early biographer 'must have heard it from the lips of Galileo himself, affirmed in a manner so certain and explicit that it cannot be called into question.' Thus, a story that is almost entirely devoid of evidence was portrayed as if it were clearly true."

Martínez specializes in the the history of Einstein's theory of relativity. He explains that disagreements among historians led him to study the evolution of myths in general.

"Years ago," he says, "I was surprised that in a field as large and developed as the history of Einstein's relativity, strangely, there were still very many disagreements. For example, some writers claim that Einstein was influenced by aesthetics and art, others claim that he was inspired by his job at the Swiss patent office, or by philosophy, or by reflections on God, or by his wife, or by the mathematician Henri Poincaré, or by old experiments on light.

Einstein in patent office around 1905, Bern, Switzerland"But some of these claims are just guesswork, so I became interested in how we can write accounts that are based on evidence, instead of conjectures. Also, myths are popular because they work, they satisfy, so I wanted to study the shape of these myths so that when we tell actual history we can also write in a way that is just as interesting and engaging."

Martínez's research is also featured on the College of Liberal Arts website. In an interview with Public Affairs Specialist Jessica Sinn, Martínez answered questions about separating fact from fiction in science history regarding Science Secrets.

Photo of Einstein at patent office around 1905, Bern, Switzerland

Lead graphic created with image from Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle second edition (1845) "Four finches from the Galápagos islands"; photo of Martínez by Judy Hogan

Daily Texan event news story, June 9, 2011

Q&A with Jessica Sinn posted on Know website
ShelfLife blog
Office of Public Affairs Further Findings blog

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