I just learned of a new science book and the interesting fact that the word "scientist" was coined in the latter half of the 18th century, largely in response to the work of Charles Darwin who dismissed romantic or religious explanations of how the natural world came to be, and instead relied about a rigorous set of scientific principles.

The book is called Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Aggasiz, and the Meaning of Coral (Amazon). Here's the back story, discussed in a conversation above with author David Dobbs.

Charles Darwin's career took off after a paper in which he set forth a scientific explanation of the formation of coral reefs which sent shock waves through the academic community.

At the time, coral reefs were held as the best display of God's creative prowess. With spectacular and almost unimaginable (and evidently unnecessary) displays of color and form, the coral reef seemed to prove that a simplistic notion of evolution could not explain away the divine creation of biology on planet Earth.

The greatest and most articulate proponent of the creationist coral theory at the time was Louis Aggasiz, a veritable star of early 19th century biology. After the publication of Darwin's theory on coral development (which predated Origins by 23 years) Aggasiz was eventually forced to step down from his academic post.

Here's the interesting controversy. Though Darwin was in some respects correct, his original coral theory was almost completely unfounded on scientific fact — a point which Aggasiz's son Alexander (who was also a brilliant engineer and scientist) noted.

Aggasiz respected Darwin, though he had more or less destroyed his father's career, but knew his theory, which relied upon the notion of undersea volcanic activity, was incorrect. As a geologist he had explored the world's reef systems and knew that there were other factors involved, most notably the build up of dead phytoplankton.

The book explores how even a great scientist like Darwin can, like the creationists he attacked, be blinded by theory.

via: Scienceblogs