100 Greatest Science Discoveries of All Time.
Science has had a profound influence on human society throughout recorded history. The goal of the author is no small feat: to outline the 100 greatest scientific discoveries. The book starts with levers and buoyancy that were discovered by ancient Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes in 260 BC, and ends with the sequence of the human genome in 2003, credited to James Watson and Craig Venter. As such, the author presents an abbreviated history of science.
Each entry is a brief two pages and considers: the year of discovery and the discoverer(s), why is it one of the 100 greatest, and how was it discovered (which is the heart of the entry). The writing is engaging and lively, and several references are provided at the end of each section. The topics include physical sciences, earth sciences, and the life sciences.
Some of the discoveries chosen were obvious: Copernicus showing the earth is not at the center of the universe, Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons, Hooke characterizing cells as the building blocks of life, Newton's law of universal gravitation, Darwin's theory of evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity, and the Watson and Crick model for DNA. Other entries were initially less apparent to me but I was convinced after reading the text: the calculation of the distance from the earth to the sun in 1672 by Cassini, the discovery of the erosion of the earth by James Hutton in 1792, the discovery of the existence of ices ages by Agassiz in 1837, and the existence of ecosystems by Tansley in 1935.
The author clearly conveys the historical context and the excitement of the discoveries. For instance, Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter had radical societal implications, which is why he got in trouble with the powerful interests represented by the church. Up until Galileo, only the earth was thought to have a moon, but to his profound amazement, as he peered through his telescope, he clearly saw four moons circling Jupiter! This discovery supported Copernicus' controversial ideas about the solar system.
The author tries to show the readers the exhilaration scientists felt at the time of the discovery. This is an important point to convey to our students: that science is constantly renewing itself and it is exciting. For instance, in the entry on Ingenhousz, who discovered photosynthesis in 1779, the author writes, "Ingenhousz was amazed at the beauty and symmetry of what he discovered. Humans inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide. Plants did just the opposite." He gives numerous examples of scientists not being appreciated by their peers when they make great breakthroughs. He writes, "As so often happens with radically new ideas, Barbara McClintock was simply dismissed by the audience with a bored and indifferent shrug." This passage refers to a talk she gave in 1951 on her novel concept of "jumping genes." Although the audience did not appreciate her, she was ultimately honored with a Nobel Prize in 1983. Another entry focuses on the discovery of endosymbiosis by Lynn Margulis in 1967: "Like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Darwin before her, Margulis has uprooted and changed some of science's most deeply held theorems and assumptions."
What is amazing is that the writing is at the sixth grade reading level. Perhaps this encouraged the author to write in a clear and simple matter. The end result is delightful, and the reading very enjoyable. The book can be used as a supplement to a variety of secondary science classes, and I recommend its acquisition by high school libraries. Anyone who reads it will gain a better appreciation for the history of science.
John Z. Kiss, Ph.D.
Department of Botany