Books: Explaining Scientific Discoveries (but Not Newton's Behaviour); on Giants' Shoulders - Great Scientists and Their Discoveries from Archimedes to DNA. by Melvyn Bragg with Ruth Gardiner (Sceptre, Pounds 7.99). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn
Reyburn, Ross, The Birmingham Post (England)
For those who find science a journey into the incomprehensible, Melvyn Bragg offers a brave attempt to decipher, assess and explain the achievements of the world's greatest scientists through the views of prominent contemporary experts in his book.
This paperback version of his best-selling hardback based on the BBC Radio 4 series looks at 12 great scientists and interestingly Archimedes (c287-212 BC) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) are singled out as the contenders for the distinction of being vi ewed as the greatest scientist in history.
"Whereas Newton said 'I have only seen so far because I have been standing on the shoulders of other giants,' there was nobody's shoulders for Archimedes to stand on," says Lewis Wolpert. "He is so original and imaginative that I think he is better than Newton."
But the great Albert Einstein (1879-1955) disagreed, never doubting Newton was the greatest scientific genius of all time. "Nature to him was an open book. He stands before us strong, certain and alone." Bragg's verdict on the reclusive Newton the person is that he was "downright weird". Certainly a man who leaves his guests in his rooms at Cambridge to get a bottle of wine from another room and then sits at his desk working for hours forgetting both his friends and the wine is in a league of his own in the absent-minded stakes. But who expects a genius to be normal?
The book's efforts to offer some insight into the intricacies of the great scientific discoveries will be lost on most laymen. But its anecdotes and verdicts make interesting reading.
One aristocrat offered pounds 500 to anyone who could explain what Newton's masterwork Principa Mathematica, written in Latin and published in 1687, meant. …