Science: Under The Microscope; Lessons from the Giants

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The Independent Culture
IN 1675 Sir Isaac Newton made the modest claim that "if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." In a world where science can be perceived as something dastardly spawned by modern times, and where scientists can become impatient with any work published more than a few years previously, how timely that Melvyn Bragg should conceive of a vehicle that will remind professionals as well as society that an enquiring mind and urge to learn from what one sees, has been with us since the 2nd century BC. Some may have caught On Giants' Shoulders on Radio 4. If not, or if you want more time or material to ponder, the book published by Hodder & Stoughton is for you.

The idea is simple - to interview physicists, astronomers, chemists, mathematicians and biologists about great figures in the past, and to explore how modern day scientists have been inspired and influenced by them. In each case three or four interviews are intermixed with Bragg adding his own comments and guiding questions. As a result the book avoids the obvious danger of reading as a monotonous series of transcripts: each chapter has the pace and liveliness of a round table discussion with a clear feeling of development of ideas. In a surprisingly brief space, one can thus taste a flavour of true debate as each contemporary scientist brings in their own angle. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book offering readers a multi-layered insight into the realm of pioneers who have not just performed experiments within an existing conceptual framework, but who have shaken the most basic assumptions and by doing so have shifted paradigms of thought.

Another pleasing feature is that the Giants profiled span both millennia and disciplines. Archimedes, Galileo, Lavoisier, Poincare, Newton, Faraday and Curie rub shoulders with Freud, Darwin, Crick and Watson. In these times where scientists are being strait-jacketed into a single discipline, and where the cross-talk of multidisciplinary endeavour is going underfunded and unencouraged, what a joy to roam across the traditional boundaries of the branches of science.

So, we are able to appreciate that good ideas and inspirations in science can still impact on thought and experiment: the Young Technocrat Turk proudly pressing all the right buttons in the latest laboratory needs to be reminded that it is ideas and the falsifiable hypotheses they generate that lie at the heart of science, and that those ideas are connected to the reflections and conjectures of the astonishing minds of other, less technological eras.

The historical settings have the added advantage of placing each Giant in a personal context. So here is a novel way of de-spooking a general public shunning the cold-hearted, out-for-world-domination, Frankenstein stance that even now pervades.

But does future society really need scientists as opposed to technologists? The book ends with a valuable appraisal of where science is going. As millennium fever strikes, it is timely to explore whether we are at a stage comparable with that of the end of the last century - awaiting the over-turning of paradigms in another scientific revolution, or whether there is nothing truly great left to discover. Arguments from both camps are laid out, perhaps the most persuasive line comes from the erstwhile editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox, who argues we can revisit each problem posed by the world around us, and that " in science is not so much the next gee whizz discovery, it is learning to ask questions that even Aristotle asked, more perceptively, more incisively and more meaningfully." On Giants' Shoulders offers us all a chance to trace that progress.