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.


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 ]. New Zealand born nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford had mused "If a piece of physics cannot be explained to a barmaid, then it is not a good piece of physics [1 ]. Table 2 shows more gems of thought from the scientific giants. In his book [7] loan James told us the story of Rutherford's day at Cambridge. Although he was a social and academic success, he was still conscious of the prevailing Cambridge snobbery towards those who had been undergraduates elsewhere, especially in the Colonies.

Concluding Remarks

Science and scientists will continue to be subjects of interests to scientists and non-scientists alike. Many scientists have become iconic figures in our popular culture. Books on Einstein thus abound. They have become collectors' delight [8]. Gems of thoughts from these great scientists have become quotable quotes. There is so much truth in it that people have taken it as mantra. By reading these books we get to know how science evolves and what constitutes a scientific revolution. As mentioned by J. J. Thomson, the discoverer of electron, revolutions, whether political or industrial, are exceedingly profitable things if you are on the winning side. Success in science is always a win-win situation, both to the scientists and the laymen who will eventually enjoy the fruits of scientific discoveries or inventions.


We thank the Faculty of Science and Technology of UKM for financial assistance and Nor Eriina for secretarial assistance.


[1.] Clifford A. Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking, Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2.] John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, New York, 2002.

[3.] John Gribbin, The Fellowship, The Overlook Press, 2008.

[4.] Emileo Segre, From X-rays to Quarks, Dover Publications. Inc., 1980.

[5.] Roger G. Newton, A History of Physics--From Clockwork to Crapshoot, The Belknap Press, 2007.

[6.] David Ellyard, Who Discovered What When, Reed New Holland, 2005.

[7.] loan James, Remarkable Phycisists--From Galileo to Yukawa, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[8.] Koh Aik Khoon, Azman Jalal@Jalil, R. AbdShukor, Baharudin Yatim, Ibrahim Abu Talib, Abdu! Razak Daud and Supian Samat, Books on Einstein--Collector's Delight, College Student Journal 43(1), March 2009.


School of Applied Physics

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

Table 1 Some Books on Science and Scientists

                                                       Year     No. of
No.       Title           Author        Publisher    Publisher  Pages

1    Archimedes to     Clifford A.    Oxford           2008      514
     Hawking           Pickover       University

2    The Scientists    John Gribbin   Random House     2002      645
                                      New York

3    The Fellowship    John Gribbin   The Overlook     2008      336

4    From X-rays to    Emileo Segre   Dover            1980      339
     Quarks                           Publications,

5    A History of      Roger G.       The Belknap      2007      340
     Physics--From     Newton         Press
     Clockwork to

6    Who Discovered    David Ellyard  Reed New         2005      439
     What When                        Holland

7    Remarkable        loan James     Cambridge        2004      389
     Physicists--From                 University
     Galileo to                       Press

Table 2 Gems of Thoughts from Great Scientists [6]

Quotable Quotes                                          Scientists

Science moves with the spirit of an adventure          James D. Watson
characterised both by youthful arrogance and by the
belief that the truth, once found, would be simple
as well as pretty.

Science is the search for truth--it is not a game in    Linus Pauling
which one tries to beat his opponent, to do harms to

An important scientific innovation really makes its      Max Planck
way by gradually winning over and converting its
opponents. What does happen is that its opponents
gradually die out, and that the growing generation
is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning.

Research in applied science leads to reforms,           J. J Thomson
research in pure science leads to revolutions, and
revolutions, whether political or industrial, are
exceedingly profitable things if you are on the
winning side.

Every scientific truth goes through three states:       Louis Agassiz
first, people say it conflicts with the Bible; next,
they say it has been discovered before, lastly, they
say they always believed it.

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