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Books: groundbreakers

Groundbreakers series
John Cabot; Francis Drake; Ferdinand Magellan; Marco Polo; Charles Babbage; John Logie Baird; Alexander Graham Bell; Marie Curie; Charles Darwin; Thomas Alva Edison; Albert Einstein; Michael Faraday; Alexander Fleming; Dian Fossey; Galileo; Edwin Hubble; Isaac Newton; Florence Nightingale; Louis Pasteur; James Watt
Heinemann Library pound;10.99 each
TES Direct pound;10.49 each (020 8324 5119)

Mental as well as physical courage is celebrated in this attractive series for readers of 10 and over. The books make the point that exploring new realms of thought often requires as much determination as crossing unknown oceans and trackless deserts. The same voices of
prudence and caution must be heard, pondered and ignored.

Each book of 48 pages fits a full biography into a larger historical context. For representatives of the age of exploration, this includes such matters as European religious and dynastic conflicts, commercial rivalries, the slave trade, and the development of cartography and of maritime techniques. These are explained in clear language, some taken from contemporary accounts, and complemented with well-selected illustrations.

The pioneers of science and invention come from the early 17th to the late 18th centuries. Their varied characters form a central topic of interest, from the reclusiveness of Newton, slowly incubating his world-changing ideas, to the opportunism of Edison. Apt quotations help display rounded personalities. Darwin is overheard exclaiming that it's "intolerable to think of spending one's whole life like a neuter bee, working, working amp; nothing after all". One of Marie Curie's poems describes her student life: "She lives obscure and blessed", finding pleasure and passion in her intellectual ardour.

Another theme derives from the debts some of the greatest scientists acknowledge to their notable predecessors and contemporaries. Einstein pays eloquent tribute to Galileo and Newton. Faraday and Davy express mutual respect, althoughnbsp; the awkwardness and occasional jealousy within the master-pupil relationship is brought out.

As with the explorers, the books sketch in the broader context. Rivals or colleagues receive brief portraits, so Florence Nightingale is linked with Mary Seacole, and Darwin's work is described against the background of the researches of Lyell and Wallace and the polemics of Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce.

  • Picture: light on genius, Thomas Edison
    • A longer version of this review is in this week's TES

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