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Brushes with Greatness

Thomas Isenhour

On Giants' Shoulders: Great Scientists and their Discoveries—from Archimedes to DNA. Melvyn Bragg. 384 pp. John Wiley and Sons, 1999. $22.95.

On Giants' Shoulders is a giant of a book. The stories are personal, historically and scientifically interesting—and bound to capture the imagination of scientist and layperson alike. Bragg presents the humanness of 12 scientific geniuses from Archimedes to Watson, simultaneously interpreting the significance of their work. He does this with the worthy help of modern scientists who include such great spokesmen as Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins and Roger Penrose. The text contains poignant entries such as the letter Lavoisier wrote to his wife the night before he was executed by the French Revolutionary Council, Marie Curie's diary note on learning of the death of her husband, Pierre, and a letter from none other than Charles Dickens asking Faraday for lecture notes that he wanted to publish.

He concludes with a chapter on where we are now, quoting authors such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, John Maddox and John Horgan on whether science is standing on a great threshold of discovery or has reached its limit and will have to concentrate on increasingly less significant details in the future. Reading the last chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Conclusions are drawn by many of our modern greats, but the reader, or more likely the future, will have to decide who is right.

Bragg begins with Archimedes, whom he claims is the first scientist. Many historians give this honor to Aristotle, but Bragg makes his case for Archimedes well. Then he proceeds with fascinating insights into the lives and careers of Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Faraday, Darwin, Poincaré, Freud, Curie, Einstein, Crick and Watson. I was glad to see Freud included, as many writers of science ignore him completely. Poincaré is perhaps the only real surprise, although he is certainly underappreciated. Many, myself included, would argue that Maxwell should not have been left out. Some might argue that Dalton should have been chosen rather than Lavoisier.

On Giants' Shoulders reads so well that it is easy to overlook the masterful way that Bragg has integrated quotations from his many interviews with Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Susan Quinn, Evelyn Fox Keller and others. It is a refreshing approach to have these modern, articulate scientific thinkers commenting on the significance of the greatest scientific thinkers of the past, one that perhaps only a journalist like Bragg would have used. Although not a scientist himself, Bragg has shown us the value of the journalistic method. I enjoyed this book immensely and only wish that I could have been present at the interviews that Bragg conducted. I recommend On Giants' Shoulders to anyone who finds science, scientists or the workings of great minds interesting.—Thomas L. Isenhour, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University

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