Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History by John Grant

Giants’ shoulders…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

EurekaThis 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…)

dilbert-quantum-computer

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
John Grant

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS John, I forgive you for the American spelling… but will Aberdeen??

38 thoughts on “Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History by John Grant

  1. Brilliant, FF! I have clicked over the blog and followed and shall be heading to Amazon forthwith. This book sounds fabulous and just my cup of tea. I am very interested in science, but am unfortunately a moron (especially with anything involving numbers) so this sounds perfect. I had a crack at Brief History Of Time many years ago and surprised myself by getting about three quarters of the way through before the technicals became too much for my little head. I think a better book would be A Timely History Of Briefs – a comprehensive work covering the no doubt fascinating evolution of underwear. Anyway. Thank you for bringing this to our attention!

    • Haha! A Timely History of Briefs would be wonderful – an illustrated version, of course! With Rafa as the model…

      I think you’ll enjoy this one as much as I did – as you probably know, I struggle with the concept of string much less string theory, but John gets the imporatnt points over. And the stuff about the scientists’ lives is interesting and with a lot of humour in there. Go for it! 😀

  2. Oh, my inner geek is must intrigued by this one FictionFan!! It sounds both informative and interesting. And that’s sometimes a very hard balance to strike! And you say there’s wit, too? Methinks I may have to check this one out!

    • Yes, indeed, an enjoyable and informative one and pitched at a level that works well for the non-scientists among us. And all the stuff about the scientists’ lives was interesting too, seeing how they got into their various fields, and all the rivalry and stuff. A good read!

  3. The Earth isn’t flat!!? Why wasn’t I told?
    This book sounds just my sort of thing – I always thought schools should have taught us about the history and significance of science, rather than trying to persuade me to dissect a frog (or worse, a white rat!)

    • Shocking, isn’t it? Next they’ll be trying to tell us the Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth!
      Me too – well, how often have we discussed how much we were put off science by the way it was taught? And maths – no-one ever bothered to tell me what things like calculus were actually for! A good one for school libraries too, this, I’d say – one that kids who’re interested in science might actually enjoy reading…

      • After I posted yesterday, I had a kind of brain itch – is this John Grant the author of Spooky Science, Discarded Science, etc? If so, I’ve read and enjoyed some of his earlier stuff.

        • Yes, indeed he is! He’s pretty prolific – I believe he’s also written SF & fantasy. Won Hugos in fact. And he’s also done reference books about film noir. A man of many talents!

  4. Many thanks for the kind words, FF!

    For future reference, the surefire way to get a cat in a box, based on extensive experience, is as follows:

    (a) Place open box in middle of carpet.
    (b) Wait three seconds.

    It may take a little longer if you don’t actually own a cat, but sooner or later one will appear.

    • My pleasure!

      Hahaha! You have a point – though mine are more partial to plastic bags on the whole. I think possibly where I make my mistake is by screaming “OMG! Look at the blood! We must get you to the vet!” just before opening the box…

      • Getting them into the cat carrier is another matter altogether. More than once we’ve had to phone up the vet to cancel an appointment: “We simply cannot find the cat in question . . .”

        • Ha! Yes, I’ve had that experience too, especially with the female Tuppence, who I swear is psychic. I merely have to think about getting the box out and she’s offski…

  5. Too bad my dad passed before this one came out — he’d have loved the combination of biographies and science!! Even I (who share every writer’s general dread over numbers and such) would find the topic interesting, especially in small doses. Thanks for letting us know about it!

    • Yes, I like things like this to come in small doses too, especially since I hate to stop reading in the middle of a chapter but can only take factual books in fairly small chunks. This one is perfect for picking up and putting down, though I did find myself doing that ‘one more chapter’ thing a couple of times…

  6. Your review of this book makes me want to go out and get it right away. I like the science, but even more than that, I love the history of science, and am very happy to hear that he wrote his book chronologically so that we can get a sense of the timeline. I also looked up his page on Goodreads and saw that he’s written many other interesting books about science for me to check out! It would be a bonus if my kids were also interested!

    • I like the timeline aspect of it too. Through reading factual books, I get lots of pieces of information but sometimes I realise I don’t really have a feel for where they ‘fit’. This one worked really well for that. Yes, science and noir films seem to be his specialities, and you can tell he’s an experienced writer – he has the knack of making things interesting and enjoyable. If your kids are reaching their teen years, I’d think this might be something that would really help inspire an interest in science… 🙂

  7. OH!!!!!!!! I never realised this was Noirish Realthog clearly a man of many talents. Are there plans to turn this book into a b + w 30s style film?? Jokes aside, well done him, well done you

    • Now I think of it, he didn’t include Frankenstein! A strange omission – and then I could have done a film of the book post. But I can see Bogart and Bacall as the Curies…

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