Reading the Greats
The Discoveries: The Great Breakthroughs in 20th-century
Science, Including the Original Papers. Alan Lightman.
xviii + 553 pp. Pantheon, 2005. $32.50.
Why is it that Hamlet and Moby Dick are
universally recognized as great works of art, whereas the original
scientific papers of luminaries such as Albert Einstein or Barbara
McClintock—containing creative and imaginative leaps just as
profound—are seldom read, even by scientists? Troubled by this
incongruity, physicist, novelist and science writer Alan Lightman
has collected 25 of the most important scientific publications of
the last century in a volume titled The Discoveries.
Ranging from Max Planck's introduction of quantum discontinuity into
black-body radiation (1900) to Paul Berg's pioneering recombinant
DNA techniques (1972), the discoveries marked by these papers
represent exhilarating forays into the unknown. Each paper is
accompanied by a short essay by Lightman describing the historical
context and the scientists' inspirations and motivations.
Great scientific papers, Lightman insists throughout, are works of art:
Like poetry, these papers have their internal rhythms,
their images, their beautiful crystallizations, their sometimes
fleeting truths. . . . In these papers, we see enormously gifted
human beings grappling with the nature of the world.
The Discoveries is thus far more than a lineup of
20th-century science's "greatest hits." It is an attempt
to show that reading formal scientific literature can offer a window
into the minds of great scientists. Lightman certainly has a point:
Great scientific work of the past is rarely encountered in its
original form, whether by professional scientists, their students or
the educated public. Retrospective accounts of great discoveries
hardly ever present a window onto the scientific imagination, or
into the individual thinking style of the scientist herself.
The trouble is, neither do most scientific papers. Consider the
contrast between Otto Loewi's matter-of-fact 1921 report on chemical
neurotransmitters and the feverish, dream-inspired, late-night
activity that led to their discovery. Or James Watson and Francis
Crick's dry 1953 announcement in Nature of their model for
the structure of DNA, compared with the sensational rivalries and
ruthless race to the finish portrayed in Watson's memoir, The
Double Helix. The conventions of scientific literature tend
to obscure what Lightman's essays place in the foreground: the
"prejudices, passions, and personal judgments" that propel
scientists to discovery.
The essays bring each discovery to life as a dramatic human event,
but they do little to inspire close readings of the original
publications. Many of the papers will remain incomprehensible to the
nonspecialist, even with Lightman's guidance. This is unsurprising,
because most scientific publications—whether groundbreaking or
routine—are expressly written for specialists. They are not
meant to be easily grasped even by scientists outside the discipline
or subdiscipline of the author. Thus the short and densely
mathematical paper of 1967 in which Steven Weinberg presents his
brilliant unified theory of weak and electromagnetic interactions
may seem jarringly impenetrable next to Lightman's elegant account
of the symmetry principles underlying its argument. (Weinberg
himself is known for his exceptionally well-written books on physics
for a general audience.) Rather than elucidating the internal rhythm
and style of the historical papers, Lightman's essays may tempt the
general reader to skip them altogether.
The essays about the papers form the real backbone of the book and
take up two-thirds of its 509 pages. As one might expect, Lightman
is most masterful on topics in physics. At his best, he seamlessly
weaves technical material and philosophical reflections into his
gripping accounts of the flawed but brilliant men and women who
drive scientific change. Alexander Fleming's discovery of
penicillin, Edwin Hubble's proof of the expansion of the universe
and Weinberg's development of unified field theory are all
beautifully narrated. For context Lightman draws judiciously on
numerous biographies and histories of science. At times, though, he
goes against established consensus in the historical literature. He
has Planck committed in 1900 to the position that "energy has a
granularity," even though many historians argue that Planck was
uncomfortable with taking quantization that far. And he portrays
Albert Michelson and Edward Morley's attempt to measure the
properties of the ether as a crucial experiment in the history of
relativity—a myth debunked by the eminent Einstein scholar
Gerald Holton decades ago.
The Discoveries provides a compelling snapshot of a
scientific century teeming with big ideas. Some readers will
undoubtedly quibble over the omission of personal favorites such as
general relativity or continental drift. But the fact is that
Lightman has compiled an array of profoundly original and
influential discoveries. We may have to look elsewhere, however, to
understand the elusive creative processes of discovery. Consider the
brilliant and reclusive McClintock, whose description of her own
dawning comprehension of transposons (or "jumping genes")
Lightman wisely allows to speak for itself:
When you suddenly see the problem, something
happens—you have the answer before you are able to put it into
words. It is all done subconsciously. This has happened too many
times to me, and I know when to take it seriously. I'm so absolutely
sure. I don't talk about it, I don't have to tell anybody about it,
I'm just sure this is it.
Lightman's map of 20th-century science beautifully conveys the human
drama of discovery but leaves its imaginative unfolding as
mysterious as ever.
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