An encyclopedic look at science as a process

The Great Scientists, by Jack Meadows. New York: Oxford University Press. 248 pp. $35. ``The Great Scientists'' is a museum-in-a-book - the reader gets almost as much out of the visual aspects of these 12 biographies as the literary. And browsing is not prohibited. This encyclopedic-style volume, written for high-schoolers and laymen of any age, attempts to put the history of science in a ``broader cultural context.''

Jack Meadows starts with Aristotle and ends with Einstein; the 12 scientists selected cover a range of disciplines. Some ``chose themselves'': Galileo, Newton, Darwin. Others were included because they made it possible for those who followed to ask better questions.

The book includes only scientists from the West. Conspicuously missing is a representative of early Asian or Middle Eastern science. The Muslim Al Biruni would have made a nice addition; he and other Arab scientists were modifying Ptolemy's cartography in the Middle Ages while their European counterparts were spinning their wheels in the dogmatic mud.

The structured presentation of information enables ``The Great Scientists'' to fold its many ingredients into a volume only an inch thick. Each page is a panorama. We are there among the instruments, confidants, and symbols important to a Marie Curie, or a William Harvey.

One layout in the life of Galileo displays two 17th-century engravings of the earth and sun-centered solar systems, photos of Galileo's telescopes, and part of a letter in which the astronomer explained his method of measuring the heights of moon mountains. And this is only the top half of the spread.

In each chapter there's a time line plus four boxed ``features'' covering the interaction of science with the technologies, institutions of learning, culture, and politics and religions of the day.

Oddly, because the main text of each chapter is highly condensed, short articles carry some of the richest material. One feature on Freud discusses mesmerism and phrenology. Using criteria proposed by philosopher of science Karl Popper, the discussion explores the distinction between science and pseudoscience.

The book ranges widely. Literature comes up. One spread traces the influence of Charles Darwin on the literature of his day; Thomas Hardy, Samuel Butler, and George Eliot were all fascinated with evolution's moral and philosophical implications.

Politics is not ignored. In a feature in the Einstein section, we learn how followers of communist and Nazi ideology distorted science - this, in sharp contrast to the common notion of science as sheltered from the winds of ideology.

Often, the human-interest approach taken in ``The Great Scientists'' catches some revolutionary figure unawares. The reader bumps into Aristotle, the fountainhead of modern science, writing in private. ``The lonelier and more solitary I become, the more I have come to love myths,'' he is supposed to have said. The reader is invited to speculate: Perhaps on the personal things, his ``objective impersonality'' was yielding somewhat to the imagery and playfulness more characteristic of his teacher, Plato.

With the material provided in this ``museum,'' one can draw some rather broad lessons. For example, as a body of continuously changing knowledge, science accumulates only that part of an individual's work that turns out to be true (as far as we know). It grafts that work upon truths discovered by previous scientists, and moves on. Yes, scientists sometimes produce whole original contributions. Antoine Lavoisier wrote ``An Elementary Treatise of Chemistry,'' Isaac Newton wrote the ``Principia.'' Unlike the humanities, a thorough grasp of the natural sciences can be gained without studying the original sources. The ``Principia'' is unlikely to be on many high school or and college reading lists, as would, say, Hawthorne's ``The Scarlet Letter.''

The study of science should include the history of science. Some of the fortunate mistakes made by scientists are not attributed by the name of some surviving law or theory. Newton's erroneous opinion that all lens telescopes would produce color-blurred images led him to invent a telescope that uses a mirror instead to collect light - a superior method.

Although the scientific explanations are thin in places, ``The Great Scientists'' shows science as a process, not just as a body of knowledge. Organization and bounty make it a useful reference work.

Robin Johnston is on the Monitor staff.

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