Denver Bar Association
May 2000
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Seven Journeys Into Science Dramas

by Wick Downing

by Wick Downing

Most of us carry a picture in our minds of what an atom looks like. It has a nucleus, a cluster of protons and neutrons. Electrons orbit the nucleus like moths around a light bulb.

Blow an atom up to the size of the Superdome in New Orleans. The electrons will orbit the outer perimeter of the building at thousands of miles per second. And how big will the nucleus be? The size of a pearl!

In the words of David Eliot Brody, a lawyer among us in the Denver office of Patton Boggs, an international law firm based in Washington, D.C.; "Matter in its most fundamental form consists solely of these electrical charges (protons and neutrons that form the nucleus of an atom, and electrons that buzz around it). This substance from ‘nothing' that results when electrical charges combine to form atoms and when atoms combine to form elements and molecules, would qualify as the greatest illusion there is—except it is reality."

The quote is from a book he authored with his brother Arnold, the director of the Lung Biology Program at Tulane University Medical School and an internationally known scientist.

The book is titled "The Science Class You Wish You Had: The Seven Greatest Scientific Discoveries in History and the People Who Made Them," and is a best-seller. Published in Germany, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden, and Australia, with a forward by a Nobel prize recipient, the work is in its sixth printing. Sales are stronger now than when it first came out in 1997. To read it is to understand why.

It's a bit like James Michener's, Tales of the South Pacific." Each chapter in Michener's work is a separate tale that stands alone. But somehow, when you put it all together, it blends into a unique whole. The work by the Brody brothers sets the reader off on seven journeys into scientific discovery. Each of the seven will fascinate and stand alone, but they blend into a unique whole.

Each discovery is imbedded in the context of its time: its politics, personalities and institutions. There is drama in these journeys, because the discoveries often shattered institutionalized belief. That could be fatal.

In a classic bit of irony, the universe conceptualized by the free-thinking Greeks before Christ's time, was set into stone by the Catholic church. Aristotle and Ptolemy, based on the evidence available to them at their time in history, believed the Earth was the center of the universe and the stars were mounted on revolving concentric crystal spheres. Those assumptions, which the Greeks undoubtedly would have traded in for a more comprehensive set of assumptions, were regarded by the church as foundational to a true belief in the existence of God.

In the late 1500s, noted scholar Giordano Bruno published his belief, based on the best evidence available to him, that the earth was not the center of the universe. To the Catholic Church, he was a heretic.

Bruno could have recanted his beliefs, but refused. And so on February 8, 1600, after seven years of trial, bound and gagged (presumably to prevent him from speaking to his executioners and contaminating them), they lit him up. Literally.

The account of Bruno's heroic leap into history is one of the jewels the reader encounters in the saga of the first of the seven discoveries, that of gravity and the basic laws of physics.

Sir Isaac Newton needed the scientific bricks provided by Descartes, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, and others, to build his massive work known as "The Principia." There, the basic laws of gravity and physics were first articulated. Those who read Dave's book will gain some understanding of those basic laws.

The same is done for the other discoveries: (2) the structure of the atom, (3) the principle of relativity, (4) the "big bang" 15 billion years ago, and the formation of the universe, (5) evolution and the principle of natural selection, (6) the cell and genetics, and (7) the structure of the DNA molecule. Had it not been for a letter, signed by Albert Einstein to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the awesome power within the atom might not have been discovered. Had it not been for Bell Telephone's need for a radio-telephone communication system to supplement its cable across the Atlantic, the echos of the "big bang" (and consequent confirmation of the theory) might never have been heard.

Apart from basic courses in high school, Dave has yet to take a science course, but has never been intimidated by the subject.

Dave compares the legal doctrines of stare decisis and res judicata to the methodology of science: hypothesis to thesis to principle. The goals of law and science are to apply human reason to reach a correct answer. Both reach for predictability and stability. Law doesn't have the precision of the language of mathematics, and its doctrines are applied more subjectively, but it tries to be as certain as it can. Like the rest of us, Dave shrugs off its mistakes and agrees that, on balance, the law works.

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