Logo IMG


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  

Connect With Us:

    Pinterest Icon Google+ Icon Twitter Icon Facebook Icon Sm

Pizza Lunch Podcasts

African Penguins"Penguins are 10 times older than humans and have been here for a very, very long time," said Daniel Ksepka, Ph.D., a North Carolina State University research assistant professor. Dr. Ksepka researches the evolution of penguins and how they came to inhabit the African continent.

Because penguins have been around for over 60 million years, their fossil record is extensive. Fossils that Dr. Ksepka and his colleagues have discovered provide clues about migration patterns and the diversity of penguin species.

Click the Title to view all of our Pizza Lunch Podcasts!

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

  • Sigma Xi SmartBrief:

    A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.

  • American Scientist Update

  • An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.

  • Scientists' Nightstand

  • News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.

    To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: Living Color

Book Review: Keeping the Holmes Fires Burning

Book Review: “The Colonel Says”

Subscribe to American Scientist