Science without tears

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Scientists in 90 Minutes series Einstein in 90 Minutes Marie Curie in 90 Minutes Halley in 90 Minutes Darwin in 90 Minutes By John and Mary Gribbin Constable, #163;3.5O each

Any misgivings about the content of this series - for these are heavy-duty scientists - are dispelled instantly on reading the books. John and Mary Gribbin have transformed some great names of science into real people, who did indeed have a life. Their informative accounts make fascinating reading.

These are more than entertaining biographies though. A short introductory chapter sets the scientific scene, outlining how the work of others led to the new developmen t, thus explaining its importance.

For example, there is a salutory reminder that when Marie Curie was born, "atoms were not yet firmly established in the minds of all scientists as real entities", yet her great insight was that radioactivity was a property of the atoms themselves.

Einstein in 90 Minutes starts with the importance of Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism giving a constant value for the speed of light, so setting up the first contradiction of Newtonian mechanics, resolved by Einstein's special theory of relativity.

This and more is explained clearly and simply, readily accessible to non-specialists, without patronising the reader. Brief final chapters round off these discussions nicely, assessing fairly the overall importance of the work, indicating its follow-up, and drawing some unexpected conclusions. In between these chapters come the 'life and work',the bulk of each book, though there is nothing bulky about these pocket-sized volumes.

Surprisingly, Marie Curie emerges as one of the most impressive, struggling against tremendous odds even to become a scientist. Born into a Warsaw occupied by Russia, in reduced family circumstances, Marie worked to finance the university education of first her sister, then herself. As a woman, her difficulties finding a place in higher education, then gaining acceptance as a scientist, were daunting. Even after the first Nobel Prize, the Sorbonne gave her the job, but not the title, of "professor".

Determination and unstinting hard work characterise her entire life. Years toiling in a shed to extract minute quantities of radium are followed by the First World War, where she set up X-ray units which probably saved thousands of soldiers' lives. The final irony was that she, who discovered radium, then had to raise money to buy it for cancer treatment in her radium institutes in Paris and Warsaw.

The account does not stop here. The arguments about the Curies are also addressed: Pierre as the brains behind the operation, or following in his famous wife's footsteps; Marie as the greatest woman scientist or merely a competent technician. Elegant discussions yield satisfying conclusions.

Compared to Marie Curie, Darwin had it easy. From a wealthy family, he was the epitome of the gentleman scientist. His important idea was natural selection rather than evolution, as the authors are at some pains to point out. Like the other great names, he completed his important work by his early thirties. Darwin then sat on it for the next 20 years, and various reasons are suggested: his desire for a thorough account, establishing himself as a biologist, ill-health, domestic responsibilities.

Intriguingly, only passing mention is made of the likely reaction of his religious wife and the Church, and the impact on hierarchical Victorian society of his treating man as just another "mammal".

How Darwin was finally forced into print, and the range and importance of his other work, complete the account.

The last thing I expected was to laugh out loud at one of these books, but that was the effect of Edmond Halley's multifarious exploits, as told here. It seems that the comet, whose return he successfully predicted, is almost the last thing he should be remembered for: "an extraordina ry polymath - by turns scientist, inventor and diplomat (almost certainly a spy . . . ); friend of Royalty, and sometime naval captain". This was by no means all.

He funded the publication of Newton's Principia, produced the first meteorological charts, and still had time to be a libertine (probably). More than enough for several lifetimes. Particularly appealing are his wild games with Tsar Peter the Great in Deptford, and the story of him persuading the Admiralty to build him a ship, for unspecified scientific investigation, and then being appointed captain "of a King's ship in the Royal Navy - the only landsman ever to receive such a commission". The writing conjures strong visual images. Feature films on Halley and Curie must soon follow!

Einstein in 90 Minutes is mostly "the work" with very little "life". Unavoidable almost, with such important work, but the other books are more successful in bringing scientists to life.

This one gives a comprehensive survey, clearly explained, of Einstein's work. It also has to risk readers feeling that, once again, they have not understood relativity. Inevitable, as relativity is difficult and visual analogies generate further obstacles, but this book goes a long way to narrowing down the problems. Perhaps it needs the perspective of history to overcome the dazzle of the work and allow us to see the man.

Forthcoming books will be on Galileo, Newton, Faraday and Mendel. With their work also set in its scientific context, this series will provide general readers with an intelligible overview of the scientific age. These books should be compulsory reading for all post-16 science students, and bright GCSE students - they work well when read aloud.

They also deserve a wider, adult audience. These are stories about science, about people working in it, and about the development of scientific understanding. Highly readable and entertaining, they do more than most to enhance the public understanding of science.

Lynne Marjoram is head of science at Kidbrooke School, south London

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