How the Great Scientists Reasoned

The Scientific Method in Action


  • Gary Tibbetts, Physics Department, General Motors Research Laboratories (Retired), Warren, Michigan, USA

The scientific method is one of the most basic and essential concepts across the sciences, ensuring that investigations are carried out with precision and thoroughness. The scientific method is typically taught as a step-by-step approach, but real examples from history are not always given. This book teaches the basic modes of scientific thought, not by philosophical generalizations, but by illustrating in detail how great scientists from across the sciences solved problems using scientific reason. Examples include Christopher Columbus, Joseph Priestly, Antoine Lavoisier, Michael Faraday, Wilhelm Röntgen, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr. Written by a successful research physicist who has engaged in many studies and years of research, all in the attempt to extract the secrets of nature, this book captures the excitement and joy of research. The process of scientific discovery is as delightfully absorbing, as complex, and as profoundly human as falling in love. It can be a roller coaster ride of despairing valleys and exhilarating highs. This book sketches the powerful reasoning that led to many different discoveries, but also celebrates the "ah-ha moments" experienced by each scientist, letting readers share the thrilling instant when each scientist reached the critical revelation in his research.
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Appropriate for students and researchers from all disciplines who want to learn more about historical scientific reasoning.


Book information

  • Published: October 2012
  • Imprint: ELSEVIER
  • ISBN: 978-0-12-398498-2


"…physicist Tibbetts (General Motors) humanizes the methods of several scientists, using an easy-to-read style that includes enough detail to satisfy the casual and the professional reader alike…Even readers who are familiar with many of these stories will gain new insights into the thought processes of some of the great scientists."--Choice, July 2013

Table of Contents

    1. Introduction: Mankind’s urge to understand.

    2. Elements of scientific thinking: Skepticism, careful reasoning, and exhaustive evaluation are all vital.

    3. Christopher Columbus discovers the "Indies": It can be disastrous to stubbornly refuse to recognize that you have falsified your own hypothesis.

    4. Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley both tested the befuddling phlogiston theory: Junking a confusing hypothesis may be necessary to clear the way for new and productive science.

    5. Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction but failed to unify electromagnetism and gravitation: It’s generally, but not always, productive to simplify and consolidate your hypotheses.

    6. Wilhelm Röntgen Intended to study cathode rays but ended up discovering x-rays: Listen carefully when Mother Nature whispers in your ear, as she may lead you to a Nobel Prize.

    7. Max Plank, the first superhero of quantum theory, saved the universe from the ultraviolet catastrophe: Assemble two flawed hypotheses into a model which fits experiment exactly and people will listen to you, even if you must revolutionize physics.

    8. Albert Einstein attacked the problem "Are atoms real?" from several angles: Solving a centuries-old riddle in seven different ways can finally resolve it.

    9. Nils Bohr modeled the hydrogen atom as a quantized system with compelling exactness; but his later career proved that collaboration and developing new talent can become more significant than the groundbreaking research of any individual.

    10. Conclusions, status of science, and lessons for our time.