by Arthur R. Wiggins and Charles M. Wynn Sr.
Publication date: April 2016
Category: Popular nonfiction / history of science / science biography
Summary (from the publisher):
This lively and humorous book focuses attention on the fact that science is a human enterprise. The reader learns about the foibles and quirks as well as the admirable ingenuity and impressive accomplishments of famous scientists who made some of the greatest discoveries of the past and present.
Examples abound: James Watson and Francis Crick formed a legendary partnership that led to the discovery of DNA, but they essentially ignored the contribution of female colleague Rosalind Franklin. Later, in the race to sequence the human genome, Watson criticized J. Craig Venter’s technique as a process that “could be run by monkeys.” Nikola Tesla once worked for Thomas Edison, but then quit after a dispute about a bonus. Robert Hooke accused Isaac Newton of stealing his ideas about optics. Plato declared that the works of Democritus should be burned.
With tongue-in-cheek illustrations by renowned science cartoonist Sidney Harris, this book takes the reader behind the scenes of scientific research to shine new light on the all-too-human people who “do” science.
The Human Side of Science, subtitled “Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and other personal stories behind science’s big ideas,” is ‘lite’ history of science. Essentially this is a collection of mini-biographies of famous scientists, with an agenda. The agenda is to convey the messiness of doing science in real life. Personal conflicts between brilliant minds make good stories. Based on the many, many bits of biographical information contained in this book, such conflicts were not uncommon.
Unfortunately the authors of this volume are not themselves good storytellers. I finished this book and took away some interesting ideas (and themes, which I’ll get to in a moment). But I was disappointed because I had high expectations for the stories that could be told with the material at hand. As it is, information in the book does not flow in narrative form. Anecdotes are chosen and told but not prioritized in an artful sequence. Several times I was left hanging with key questions that I felt were not answered in the material provided.
Thematically, though, the book succeeds in conveying how people we look back on as “obviously” geniuses were not born with the word “genius” stamped on their foreheads. Like everyone else, they began as youths trying to make their way in the world, struggling through problems with school (a remarkable number were poor students), families, money, jobs, and girlfriends (’cause this is a book about men–see below). If you want to inspire kids to press forward with their ideas in spite of resistance, you’ll find plenty of role models here.
A nice part of The Human Side of Science is a broad cast of minor characters, people who worked with, worked against, supported, stole from, and fought with the heavyweight scientists featured in each chapter. Most of them I’d never heard of so it was fun to be introduced.
Another problem with the book is the scientists are almost exclusively male. While this isn’t normally a big deal for me, in this case it felt like a major oversight. Marie-Anne Lavoisier is credited for her work assisting her husband Antoine; Rosalind Franklin, the “dark lady of DNA,” gets a mention inside the chapter on Watson and Crick; Mileva Maric is featured not for her status as a physicist, but as Albert Einstein’s first wife; Lise Meitner gets two pages for her study of nuclear fission; Vera Rubin gets a paragraph for work on dark matter; a SETI astronomer named Jill Tarter gets two sentences. Inexplicably, a woman named Ann Druyan who worked as cowriter and TV producer for Carl Sagan gets a page, and the actress Hedy Lamarr gets two, which makes the absence of a chapter on Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel prize, all the more glaring. And where is Barbara McClintock? In the authors’ own words, “In this book we have chronicled almost four hundred people’s interactions over twenty-five hundred years and in dozens of countries of the world.” About ten of those people are women. I’m not impressed.
Despite its weaknesses, The Human Side of Science is a decent book with a welcome approach to making science interesting. An easy read, definitely worth checking out from your local library.
Most interesting thing I learned from this book: Einstein’s firstborn child “disappeared”–thriller novel, anyone?
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