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Review - Findings - Hugh Aldersey-Williams  

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Once in a while a book comes along that does something refreshingly different - and that's the case with Hugh Aldersey-Williams' Findings. The idea is simple but effective - for each decade of the 20th century it takes an important paper that has made an impact on modern scientific thought and uses it as the vehicle to explore the individual responsible and the science behind their work.

Most chapters take on a particular scientist, usually beginning with a biography and some scientific context, then pulls apart these important papers, often line-by-line. We start with Planck's modest-sounding paper that kick-started quantum theory, and move on to finally reach in the 1990s David McKay et al's examination of the possibility of life on Mars based on the evidence of the ALH00481 meteorite (this was presumably chosen for an appropriate balance of content, as Aldersey-Williams is less than impressed by the quality of the paper itself).

These two examples are a good illustration of the mix of famous people and their discoveries and obscure names who nonetheless made a significant contribution. The 1910s paper, for example, is Thomas Morgan's Sex Limited Inheritance in Drosophilia, which despite the man's relative obscurity was an important step in the chain of understanding the mechanism behind Darwin's theories, while the 1950s, rather predictably, features Watson & Crick's A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (DNA). To give a bit of variety, for a couple of decades the author takes on a span of papers - in the 1940s, for example, he intermingles work on the transistor, plutonium, penicillin and quinine.

We can only give this book three stars because it isn't popular science by our usual definition. The stodgy prose of most scientific papers does not make good explanatory reading for the non-specialist, and though Aldersey-Williams can be entertaining in his remarks, he also puts more weight on academic dryness than popular readability. However, this doesn't stop this book from being a fascinating insight into the minds of some key figures in 20th century science. And it is very valuable to be able to see the real thing, rather as a non-expert might peer with fascination at an Egyptian mummy or racing car in a museum. It isn't necessary to appreciate every detail to get the feel of something powerful going on.

This book will be a superb resource to anyone studying the history of science or wanting to examine in more depth the human thinking behind some of the essential scientific discoveries of the last 100 years. It's not bedtime reading, but it does contain valuable insight into the workings of the scientific mind.

Only  in paperback

Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007