Although the prize also matters (and a lot), the contests, of whatever type, constitute an irrevocable proof of how rivalry leads the human being to strive to stand out and get the best brand. It happens even among children: they go out of their way to show who runs faster, jumps higher or finishes the snack earlier. Y the winner does not need to receive anything in exchange for their triumph to feel satisfied and boast of achievement.
In the world of science, competitions can have results that go beyond recognition. Competitions such as NASA and IBM to select the best project in a certain area they can contribute to progress in that scientific or technological field, apart from serving the interests of the entity itself.
But the truth is that there is no need for a contest in between for researchers and experts to pull out their nails in defense of their theories, work and reputation. The good news is that, in many cases, Scuffles among scientists have contributed to many of the most important breakthroughs of history.
A genetic question
Discovering the structure of DNA was not an easy or dispute-free task. In 1962, scientists Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins shared a Nobel Prize for the find, however, not everything had been cordiality in their relationships. Although Crick and Watson first observed the triple helix at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, Wilkins and his colleague, Rosalind Franklin, were also studying its structure at King’s College London.
Before their discovery, Watson and Crick visited central London, where Franklin showed them the results they had obtained so far. Back in Cambridge, the scientists built a model based on the data they had seen in the British capital, something that ignited the rivalry between the two teams. Wilkins wrote to Crick explaining how irritated he was and demanding that they stop their work. The recipient replied that, although “we have kicked your butt, it was between friends”. The only one who abandoned the investigations was Franklin.
Is it or is it not a black hole?
Since Einstein predicted its existence with the general theory of relativity, black holes have become an inexhaustible source of enigmas for the experts, although sometimes they are the ones who behave strangely. This is the case of Stephen Hawking, who, despite studying this spatial phenomenon in theory, claimed in 1975 that it did not exist in practice.
More specifically, Hawking bet with astrophysicist Kip Thorne that Cygnus X-1, a huge X-ray source that was then considered the first identified black hole, was no such thing. Thorne disagreed and demanded that if he won, he wanted to receive a subscription to a magazine with pornographic content (Penthouse, according to Hawking in A brief history of time). In the end, it was shown that Cygnus X-1 did belong to the collapsed star club and Thorne received his award.
Geometry as a bet
What is much clearer than the nature of black holes is the curvature of the Earth. Although today no one would think that we live on a flat planetIn 1870 there were those who supported this hypothesis. John Hampden, one of its defenders, even dared to bet on its veracity with the biologist and geographer Alfred Russel Wallace, who advocated the earth’s curvature.
To prove that he was right, Wallace designed an experiment: he placed two objects in the middle of the Old Bedford river (in the United Kingdom) separated ten kilometers longitudinally to measure the depth. He installed a telescope aligned with both on a bridge, from where an observer could see how one of the posts seemed higher than the other, proof that the geographer was correct. But unfortunately for the victor, Hampden never paid him the £ 500 that had been played and, on top of that, he called him a cheater.
When sparks fly
One of the best-known rivalries in history is that shared by electrical pioneers Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. The truth is Tesla worked for the latter for a time during his youth, but left the company because they did not like the scientific method they applied. While Edison was always more concerned with patents, Tesla was focused on the invention process.
But the real problem was competition in the market, as they both tried to sell the different forms of electricity they had discovered. Edison developed direct current, while Tesla promoted alternating current. Although both criticized the other’s model, time has come to give victory to Tesla: the cheaper and more efficient alternating current is what powers our houses today.
My vaccine is the best
Biochemist Jonas Salk was the first to develop a vaccine against polio – a widespread viral disease in the mid-1950s – from destroyed polioviruses. It was followed by the virologist Albert Sabin, who two years later created his own vaccine using the live microorganism. The competition between the two accelerated the eradication of the disease in many parts of the world: at the beginning the injectable preparation of Salk was administered, but from 1964 it was quickly replaced by the oral Sabin vaccine (the so-called trivalent, because it attacked three types of virus).
Stolen physical laws
Although the British scientist Robert Hooke made important contributions to science, his name has been virtually eclipsed by that of Isaac Newton, his staunchest rival. The gossips say that Newton took advantage of his position as president of the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Science to hide and belittle Hooke’s research after he criticized some of his work on optics. According to Hooke, who determined the value of the universal gravitation constant, Newton stole from him the idea of the Law of Gravity, formulated by him in his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in 1687.
Newton’s controversies were not limited to squabbles with Hooke. Another of his pits with scientists involved the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, with whom the discovery of the calculus was disputed. Although the Teuton was the first to publish articles on differential and integral calculus, Newton claimed that he had already been working on the subject, as, according to him, a small annotation on the back of one of his papers.
Neither short nor lazy, the president of the prestigious London science society assembled a committee of friends to support him in his dispute and he even accused Leibniz of plagiarism. The truth is that the discussion never had a clear seller, so today, it is considered that both independently invented the mathematical tool in the seventeenth century.
Differences between mentor and mentee
Another notable scientist who used his influence to boycott the work of a colleague was British Humphry Davy, who had even been knighted by the Crown. The chemist took on a young Michael Faraday as a ward, who discovered electromagnetism under the tutelage of his mentor and conducted key research for the development of modern generators.
The success of his apprentice aroused Davy’s envy and he tried to discredit Faraday’s work on the basis of his status. But, far from throwing in the towel, the attitude of his teacher prompted the gifted student to continue with his studies on electrochemistry. Fortunately, time was calming Davy’s jealousy and when asked, some time later, what had been your greatest find, replied: “Michael Faraday.”
Disputes over evolution
During his career, the British Richard Owen had an important role in the advancement of paleontology and science in general: among other things, he coined the term dinosaur and founded the London Museum of Natural History. However, his prestige was accompanied by the fame of plagiarism and envy. One of his biggest rivals was the biologist Thomas Huxley, a staunch defender of the Darwinian theory of evolution to which Owen declared himself against, especially in what refers to man as a descendant of primates.
To show that people and primates are not related, Owen studied the brains of monkeys and people. Huxley did the same, showing that the animals had lesser hippocampus (or limestone avis), a brain region that Owen says was only present in humans. The biologist ended up winning the game in that controversy known as the great hippocampal question.
Climate change discussions
But to find squabbles among experts you don’t have to travel back in time. In 2005, the scientist climate prediction expert James Annan, bet 10,000 dollars (about 8,903 euros) that the planet’s temperature would continue to rise until 2017, showing that the phenomenon depended on greenhouse gases and not on solar activity. Two Russian physicists, Galina Mashnich and Vladimir Bashkirtsev, took up the challenge.
The bet, whose winner will not be known until the end of the year – although Annan has everything to win – is just one example of how controversies over climate change and its triggers have inspired a lot of studies on the phenomenon and how to stop it.
Although the examples of spikes among scientists are numerous, there are also many cases in which collaboration and teamwork have led to important breakthroughs and discoveries. However, as a research on the subject suggested, “science has always been a competitive project.”