Learning from the Lives and Works of Great Scientists

By Khoon, Koh Aik | College Student Journal, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Learning from the Lives and Works of Great Scientists


Khoon, Koh Aik, College Student Journal


This paper reports on the many books on science and scientists. Different scientists have different personalities but the commonality they share is the sheer intellect and the creative insight into nature. Reading the books will bring us the much needed inspiration. After all success of science is always transcendental and it benefits mankind.

Introduction

Books on scientists particularly on physicists abound [1-7]. Clifford A. Pickover [1] in his book Archimedes To Hawking relates the laws of science and the great minds behind them. John Gribbin's The Scientists [2] narrated the history of science told through the lives of its greatest inventors. Another book by John Gribbin called The Fellowship [3] told the story of a scientific revolution brought about by William Gilbert, Francis Bacon, William Harvey, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, among others. Recent discoveries from X-rays to Quarks was the book by Emilio Segre [4]. A History of Physics--From Clockwork to Crapshoot was written by Roger G. Newton [5]. David Ellyard's book Who Discovered What When [6] traces the growth of scientific ideas and knowledge since 1500. It spans disciplines like astronomy, palaeontology, chemistry, mathematics, geology, physics, biology and medicine, loan Jame's book Remarkable Physicists--From Galileo to Yukawa [7] was about the lives and works of 50 scientists who are the who's who of the scientific world. Table 1 shows the books mentioned and their publishers.

Scientific Personalities

Successful scientists come in all shapes and sizes and differing personalities. There is no case of one-size fits all. This makes it all the more interesting. What stands them apart from the ordinary mortals is the sheer intellect and the ability to see things in nature which others fail to see. In other words they have the so-called creative insight.

Paul Dirac stands out among the scientists as one who is famously taciturn. Pickover [1] in his book pens "Dirac was revered as the "theorist with the purest soul ... because of Dirac's taciturn and solitary demeanour [and] because he maintained practically no interests outside physics and never feigned engagement with art, literature, music or politics". Dirac himself explained his taciturn tracing back to his childhood days when his strict father wanted communication in the house to be carried out only in French. Being poor in that language, Dirac resorted to not communicating at all and he bore a deep-seated resentment towards his authoritarian father. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1933 together with Werner Heisenberg, he invited only his mother for the ceremony purposely left out his father.

Another physicist, also a Nobel laureate was however very talkative. Prince Louis de Broglie was described by his sister in the book by loan James [7] in the following manner. "This little brother had become a charming child, slender, svelte, with a small laughing face, eyes full of mischief, curled like a poodle ... His gaiety filled the house. He talked all the time even at the dinner table where the most severe injunctions of silence could not make him hold his tongue, so irresistible were his remarks". De Broglie, like Dirac, also lived up to a ripe old age--95 years old.

Reading through these books on great scientists what strikes us most are the gems coming from the lives and history of these geniuses. There is one called "Einstein's Law" which says that if you want something named after you, be careful not to do anything else after your first big success ! It refers to Einstein's fruitless search for the holy-grail of physics--the so-called Theory of Everything. Einstein's pinnacle of success came in 1905 and 1915 with his Theory of Special Relativity and Theory of General Relativity respectively.

Gems of Thoughts

Maria Mitchell says that "Every formula which expresses a law to nature is a hymn of praise to God [ l ]. …

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