Pioneers in mind and body

27th July 2001 at 01:00
Tom Deveson explores a well-rounded and well-illustrated series to discover what drove great thinkers and doers

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. TESDirect pound;10.49 each.

Mental as well as physical courage is celebrated in this attractive new series for readers of 10 and over. Clearly but unassertively, 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. It's difficult to forget the words of Antonio Pigafetta (one of Magellan's sailors) describing "biscuit reduced to powder, all full of worms and stinking of the urine that the rats made on it", or the photograph of a scurvy sufferer's shins, with the under-skin bleeding prominent.

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, although 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.

The clash of ideas and disputation is especially interesting in the case of Babbage, the computer pioneer. His startlingly original ideas are shown to emerge from within the process of industrialisation in the United Kingdom as well as from the more abstract setting of scientific methodology. We see how his analytical engine, with its programmable input, its processor "mill" and its memory, outstripped the available technology and political vision of the early Victorian era.

In contemporary France, Pasteur's conclusive attack on "spontaneous generation" is shown as a challenge to existing religious orthodoxy. The phrase "Aristotelian mathematics" in an account of Galileo seems oddly off-target - "physics" or "cosmology" would be more accurate - but there are helpful and intelligible versions of Newton's laws of motion and, more challenging, of Einstein's special and general theories of relativity.

It's less problematic to clarify the role of the separate condenser in Watt's steam engine or of the application of electromagnetic induction in Bell's development of the telephone. These and many other practical uses of theoretical discoveries are explained with good photographs, drawings and words. Faraday's inspirational urge to communicate his ideas to the young through demonstrations and lectures is described by an excited observer. Something of the same "eloquenceI and eager life" is present in this fine series.

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