There is no proof Galileo dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to compare the rate of their falls, but popular science still promotes that myth and many others, said an associate history professor at a talk Wednesday.
Alberto Martinez read excerpts from his book “Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths” to a crowd of 130 people at Bookpeople. He answered audience questions and signed copies of his book afterward.
Martinez said he became interested in investigating myths in science history after teaching them without being certain of their truth.
“There’s only so many times, if you’re curious, only so many times that you can repeat something without asking yourself, ‘Is this true?’” he said.
Martinez said myths build gradually over time from speculations and exaggerations.
“Many of these things come from fiction writers and historians using may have, must have, probably, would have, could have,” he said.
Martinez said any source could be inaccurate, but scientific historians should try harder to base their claims on primary sources rather than speculating or relying too much on secondhand information.
“Even though primary sources, such as scientists’ own early accounts can have mistakes or misrepresentations, it’s better to have account that is based on documentary sources than just made up,” he said.
These myths, which often feature dramatic struggles and portrayals of lonely martyrs fighting against powerful institutions, have continued for a reason, Martinez said.
“It’s not like the myths are just poison and toxic that we want to get rid of,” he said. “They’re successful narrative stories that we want to study so we can understand why these stories work.”
Many textbooks say the speed of light has been proved constant by experiments, Martinez said. However, experiments have shown the average round-trip speed of light to be constant, so the constancy of the speed of light is a generally-accepted convention.
“That kind of distinction, if we can make it more clearly in textbooks, would be wonderful,” he said. “Then students could more clearly understand, ‘Wait a minute, this one part is a convention, it could be much better if we could replace it with an experimental fact.’”
Bookpeople events director Julie Wernersbach said the store always looks forward to hosting University authors.
“They’re right around the corner from us, so it makes sense, and they always bring good crowds,” Wernersbach said.
Math senior David Kessler said he first met Martinez in a class he taught for the UTeach program and was inspired by his active approach to teaching.
“He always wants to know the truth and he always wants the truth to be taught,” Kessler said. “He really conveyed the importance of making sure that you’re not just accepting what someone else says.”