We all love those top n lists. You know. The hundred best film moments. The top ten places to visit in the world. So it must very tempting to sit down and list the nine most significant scientists from history (who are dead). To be fair, Mike Goldsmith doesn’t say this is what he was doing, but surely it must have been in his mind.
Given the big nine – and we’ll just keep you in suspense a moment longer – we then get to hear a bit about their biographies, about their work, and in the end what their significant contributions to science were. On the whole it works very well. Each section gives a self contained and enjoyable picture (some a little better than others), but overall you get a feel of things building. It does inevitably reinforce the model of few great geniuses changing the world, a model that is rather out of fashion these days, but given the limitations of the format that’s nearly inevitable.
So who did he choose? The obvious ones – Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Darwin and Einstein. The slightly less obvious – Aristotle, Mendel, Pasteur and Madame Curie. Most of my obvious five work well and need little comment. Einstein is the weakest, perhaps because there’s so much to cover that it seems rushed. There is also a glaring error at the start of Galileo’s chapter, when it says that Greek writings were rediscovered in the fifteenth century – it’s rather odd if this the case that the likes of Roger Bacon were studying these Greek works at university in the 1200s and writing about them at great length. But things generally go pretty well. (He does also keep alive the myth that Faraday gave his famous Ray Vibrations speech when Wheatstone ran away scared, though it has since been proved that Wheatstone wasn’t scheduled to speak that night.) But what of the others?
At first sight, Aristotle is an odd choice, as he has often been blamed for holding science back for nearly 2,000 years. But Goldsmith uses Aristotle rather as an example of the Greek move away from myth and guesswork to a more logical approach of trying to work out how the world worked. Some might suggest that Archimedes would have been a better choice, because most of his stuff was right, where Aristotle was almost entirely wrong, but that would be unfair. Pasteur makes a lot of sense, not only for the microbial work but a surprise contribution to crystallography – and anyway he was such an odious character it makes sense. Curie, realistically, is probably there because otherwise there wouldn’t be a woman. That leaves Mendel, perhaps the oddest of the choices, in that his work, while extremely important, covered much less ground than the others. We could all suggest, I suspect, half a dozen replacements (let’s start with Maxwell and Feynman)… but then that’s the fun of it all.
One other slightly worrying feature is that the book has an unusually strong anti-religious subtext. While it’s certainly true that religion has got in the way of science over the years (Galileo would hardly disagree), Goldsmith’s repeated comments verge on the obsessive and are in the end a gross oversimplification.
However, luckily this negative strand doesn’t impact highly on the value of the content, and because this works very well, keeps the pages turning and manages to provide a good view of these remarkable people in a very tight space, this book is still deserving of its four stars.
Review by Brian Clegg