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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 1998 > Bookshelf Detail


The Smart Set

Thomas Isenhour

Portraits of Discovery: Profiles in Scientific Genius. George Greenstein. 232 pp. John Wiley & Sons, 1998. $24.95.

George Greenstein is a good storyteller who gives the reader a rare glimpse of the curious mind in its lonesome search for knowledge and truth. In writing about the lives and accomplishments of 10 scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries, Greenstein tells more than the history of a few people who struggled and succeeded or sometimes died thinking they had failed. In doing so, Greenstein chronicles the changing nature of science, the mid-20th century transition from small to so-called big science. He also portrays the difficulty that women still have competing in a male-dominated field such as mathematics.

Greenstein highlights such famous scientific dons as Ludwig Boltzmann, Richard Feynman, Luis Alvarez and Homi Bhabha, George Gamow and Martin Perl. But he pays equal attention to a few new to most readers such as Annie Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Margaret Geller and John Huchra. In the process, Greenstein achieves a balance that subtly speaks of thousands and thousands of other lives lived in laboratories, libraries and institutes, individuals driven by desires of the intellect.

Greenstein also manages to speculate on science and an end to big science, which he compares to the heat death of the universe predicted by 19th-century thermodynamics. He argues that the collapse of the superconducting supercollider has spun science into melancholy. But not every scientist is convinced that finding the ultimate particle, if there is one, constitutes the ultimate science frontier or even the most important one. This dwelling on the supercollider fiasco ignores exciting successes outside high-energy physics. Consider reports of water on the Jovian moon Europa, the cloning of adult mammals and the cosmological debates of Penrose and Hawking and others. These suggest that the 21st century may surpass the 20th in unraveling nature's secrets.

Most of us would have picked a different cast from Greenstein's. I would have chosen Linus Pauling and Steven Weinberg, perhaps Oliver Sacks. But the selection is not as important as what the stories reveal: the excitement and dedication of scientists. Greenstein weaves these stories into their time and history without boring the expert with basic facts or overwhelming the amateur with scientific detail. This book is for anyone interested in science and in the people whose lives give us discovery.—Thomas L. Isenhour, Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University


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