On Giants Shoulders

Melvyn Bragg

Great Scientists And Their Discoveries
From Archimedes to DNA

My assistant Mina Varsani reviews Melvyn Bragg account of the life and times of some of the most influential minds in the history of science.

This collection of essays is based on Bragg’s Radio 4 show also entitled On Giants’ Shoulders. The result is an easily accessible look at some of the founders of modern science, from Archimedes in the 3rd century BC to Marie Curie in the 19th century to present day scientists Francis Crick and James Watson.

Each of the 11 essays are preceded by a chronological outline of the subject’s life, and allows the reader to gain a helpful sense of perspective on the forthcoming narrative. Bragg’s reflections on each of the subjects are aided and abetted by modern day science popularisers, such as Lewis Wolpert and Susan Greenfield.

The collection opens with Bragg’s discussion of the great mathematician Archimedes, and as promised in the introduction, Bragg studiously avoids confusing his prose with mathematical and scientific details. Instead he focuses on the life of Archimedes and whether his work can truly be considered that of a genius. Professor Wolpert presents his case to Bragg with enthusiasm and a conviction in Archimedes greatness, whilst Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Science at Cambridge is drafted in to present a slightly less pro-Archimedean point of view. The result of this exchange of views between the author and the two scientists provides an interesting discussion and allows the reader to make up his or her own mind.

The most tragic tale outlined in On the Shoulders of Giants is that of Marie Curie. Born in Poland, 23 year old Manya Slodowska moved to France in her twenties, to study chemistry at the Sorbonne. Despite graduating first in her class, Curie faced a battle against a culture that was distrusting of women in science. Furthermore, she was constantly dismissed as an assistant to her husband, physicist Pierre Curie, and struggled to be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right.

Susan Quinn, a biographer of Marie Curie, Professor Dominique Pestre at the National Scientific Research Centre in Paris and John Gribben, Professor of Astrophysics at Sussex University discuss Marie Curie’s contribution to science, from these difficult beginnings to her accomplishments in the field of radiation studies, and her subsequent winning of two Nobel Prizes. Bragg admirably avoids sentimentality in his account of her life, no mean feat considering her beloved husband’s premature death in a road accident, and the tragedy of Curie’s own premature death as a result of her lifetime’s exposure to radiation.

The last scientists to be discussed are the modern day founders of molecular biology, Francis Crick and James Watson. Their work has provided a catalyst for a whole new world of scientific theory, and all the moral and ethical implications that involves. Bragg and contributors also discuss the contributions of their colleague X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, controversially denied a share of medicine’s most prestigious award.

This chapter is particularly valuable, as it includes excerpts of an interview Bragg carried out with Watson himself, as well as a short extract of a dialogue between Crick and Watson, where Crick openly criticises Watson’s bestseller, The Double Helix. Whilst Watson wrote his book with the specific intention of portraying the key players as real people rather than one-dimensional scientists, Crick is decidedly against Watson’s skimping of scientific details. Crick argues that the discovery of the DNA structure and the subsequent winning of the Nobel prize are portrayed in The Double Helix as an easy achievement, and the book does not reflect the sheer enormity of their work. Other contributors to this chapter include Professor Evelyn Fox Keller at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Richard Dawkins, Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both are equally enthusiastic about the findings of Crick and Watson.

This collection of essays provides an interesting and accessible read. As Bragg explains in the introduction, the book is aimed at the layman, and the diluting of scientific facts is occasionally apparent. A few more technical details sprinkled in the text would not have gone unappreciated. Nonetheless this is an enjoyable introduction to some of the greatest contributors in the scientific arena over the centuries.