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This is a collection of mini biographies of some of the great scientists who have contributed to our current understanding of ourselves, our world and the universe we live in. In his introduction, John Grant points out that any selection is going to be subjective to a degree, but all the major names are here – Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc. – as well as several who are less well known, certainly to me. The book is aimed at teens and young adults, but frankly it works equally well for older adults like me, who have only a superficial knowledge of the history of science.
Each section follows roughly the same pattern. Grant quickly places the person in the overall timeline of scientific discovery, gives a short personal biography showing how they got involved in their particular area of science, and then explains their major achievements and, in some cases, their failures. The chapters vary in length, from a couple of pages for those people who made one specific contribution to science – like Edward Jenner, the man who discovered that cowpox could be used to create a vaccine for smallpox, leading eventually to its worldwide eradication (why didn’t I know about him?!) – to perhaps ten or so pages for those, like Newton or Einstein, who fundamentally changed the perception of the fields in which they worked. The book is structured chronologically, which allows Grant to show very clearly how each generation of scientists built on the work of those before them – in Newton’s words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Grant’s writing style is clear and very approachable, never talking down to his audience, and with a good deal of humour laced through the book to prevent the science becoming too dry. He makes the science side clear enough on the whole for even the more scientifically challenged amongst us to understand, at least until we get to relativity and quantum thingummyjigs, at which point my eyes began to roll in my head and my tongue lolled out. However, that’s my normal reaction to these things, so I don’t hold Grant to blame – he almost got me to sorta understand why the whole E = mc2 thing was important, which is more than many science writers have done. And I briefly felt I’d grasped the Schrödinger’s cat thing too… but the moment passed. (I’ve always felt it would have been of more practical benefit if Schrödinger had explained how to get a cat in a box, myself…)
But the science is only part of it. The book is as much about the history of scientific research and gives an unvarnished glimpse at some of the jealousies and backstabbing that happen in that world as much as in any other. Grant shows how sometimes female scientists would be sidelined or have credit for their work taken by their male colleagues, often only being given recognition decades or even centuries after the event. To be fair, this happened to plenty of male scientists too, either because they were outside the snobby scientific community or simply from professional rivalries getting out of hand. Men heavily outnumber women in the book, but this is to be expected since, as Grant points out, until very recently (and still, in some parts of the world) science wasn’t considered a suitable occupation for the “gentler sex”. Hah! Tell that to Marie Curie, or Émilie du Châtelet! Mostly, though, the story is one of co-operation and collaboration, especially when the book brings us towards the present day.
Each chapter ends with a little summary of factlets, such as whether the scientist has had any comets, craters, prizes etc named after her/him, plus suggestions for further reading, and information about films or music that may have been based on or inspired by her/him. These sections, I should warn you, can be fatal to your to-be-read and to-be-watched piles…
John Grant and I are regular visitors to each others blogs – he blogs about movies over on Noirish under his blog name, realthog – and he kindly provided me with a copy of this book. So obviously you will have to consider whether there may be some bias in my review. But in truth, I think this is an excellent book, informative, well written and well presented, that gives an overview of the science and scientists which is easily digestible without feeling superficial. Science has changed since I was a girl (they’ve discovered the Earth isn’t flat, for a start) and scientific writers have realised they have to make the subject interesting if they want young people to be attracted into it. This book does that – Grant writes with a warm enthusiasm and respect for the work these scientists do, without ever setting them up as unapproachable objects of reverence. He includes not just the great theoreticians whose ideas about the workings of the universe may be quite hard for the layperson to really grasp, but also more practical scientists, making a difference to our day-to-day lives, in medical research, climatology, computing, etc.
I read it straight through and enjoyed getting a feeling for the timeline of science, but this would also work very well as a reference book to look up or remind oneself of what a particular scientist is noted for. Highly recommended for any young person from about 13 up, I’d say, and for any adult who would just like to know a bit more about the subject.
PS John, I forgive you for the American spelling… but will Aberdeen??