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??

TBR Thursday 89…

Episode 89…

OK, it’s finally happened – the TBR has leapt over the 170 mark to an appalling 171! The only things I can say in my defence are tennis and politicians – the energy spent watching one and casting voodoo spells in the direction of the others has left little time to spare for reading.

Anyway…here are some of the ones that are crawling towards to the top of the heap…

Factual

EurekaCourtesy of the author. From John Grant, who also blogs about noir films as realthog over on Noirish, this book is about the lives of famous scientists and their contribution to science. Aimed at young adults, I reckon it should just about suit my level of scientific knowledge, though unfortunately not my age…

The Blurb says: Galileo, Einstein, Curie, Darwin, Hawking — we know the names, but how much do we really know about these people? Galileo gained notoriety from his battle with the Vatican over the question of heliocentrism, but did you know that he was also an accomplished lute player? And Darwin of course discovered the principle by which new species are formed, but his bold curiosity extended to the dinner table as well. (And how many people can say they’ve eaten an owl!) In Eureka! John Grant offers fifty vivid portraits of groundbreaking scientists, focusing not just on the ideas and breakthroughs that made them so important but also on their lives and their various… quirks.

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Fiction

laroseCourtesy of NetGalley. This is one of the books I’m most looking forward to as part of #20booksofsummer …

The Blurb says: North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

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Crime

sergeant cluff stands firmFrom the British Library via MidasPR, this book and another in the series are being re-published over the next couple of months to celebrate the centenary of the author Gil North. Championed by Martin Edwards, editor of all the great classic crime anthologies the BL has produced recently, as well as being a pretty nifty crime writer himself, who has written an introduction for it.

The Blurb says: ‘He could feel it in the blackness, a difference in atmosphere, a sense of evil, of things hidden.’ Amy Snowden, in middle age, has long since settled into a lonely life in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw, until – to her neighbours’ surprise – she suddenly marries a much younger man. Months later, Amy is found dead – apparently by her own hand – and her husband, Wright, has disappeared. Sergeant Caleb Cluff – silent, watchful, a man at home in the bleak moorland landscape of Gunnarshaw – must find the truth about the couple’s unlikely marriage, and solve the riddle of Amy’s death. This novel, originally published in 1960, is the first in the series of Sergeant Cluff detective stories that were televised in the 1960s but have long been neglected. This new edition is published in the centenary year of the author’s birth.

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Crime

oliver twistedCourtesy of NetGalley. Bill over at Bill’s Book Reviews headed me towards this series with his tempting reviews of the first couple. I intended to start at Book 1, but then Book 3 came out… I just don’t seem to have a handle on this reading in order thing! Another of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Blurb says: When Ivy Meadows lands a gig with the book-themed cruise line Get Lit!, she thinks she’s died and gone to Broadway. Not only has she snagged a starring role in a musical production of Oliver Twist, she’s making bank helping her PI uncle investigate a string of onboard thefts, all while sailing to Hawaii on the S.S. David Copperfield.

But Ivy is cruising for disaster. Her acting contract somehow skipped the part about aerial dancing forty feet above the stage, her uncle Bob is seriously sidetracked by a suspicious blonde, and—oh yeah—there’s a corpse in her closet. Forget catching crooks. Ivy’s going to have a Dickens of a time just surviving.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?