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The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science, Including the Original Papers Reprint Edition

13 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375713453
ISBN-10: 037571345X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this enlightening collection, novelist and science writer Lightman (Einstein's Dreams) has assembled the original works announcing 25 of the world's pioneering scientific breakthroughs, coupling them with original essays to create a meditation on the "exhilaration of discovery." The lineup is a who's who of 20th-century science—Einstein, Planck, Fleming—ranging from quantum physics to astronomy, medicine, genetics and chemistry. Lightman is at his best when humanizing the scientists behind the world's major discoveries; he offers a stunning recollection from Caltech in the 1970s, when he was a graduate student, of Richard Feynman virulently attacking a world-weary Werner Heisenberg, author of the uncertainty principle, for a terrible lecture and, implicitly, for having worked on an atom bomb for the Nazis. Unfortunately, the heart of the collection, the landmark papers themselves, will prove to be stultifying and unintelligible for readers not well versed in science. Still, Lightman's elegant accompanying narratives are strong enough to carry the book. In an age when science is expanding at a faster clip than ever before, from supercomputing to cloning, this collection is a well-timed reminder of the humanity that surrounds and indeed drives scientific discovery. B&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* No one serious about literature would neglect Shakespeare and rely solely on his interpreters. But scientists rarely read what physicist and writer Lightman calls "original discovery papers." Believing that "the first reports of the great discoveries of science are works of art," Lightman has selected 25 twentieth-century "breakthrough" papers in fields ranging from quantum physics to molecular biology, medicine, and cosmology that essentially define the world as we know it. Writing with his signature clarity, warmth, and sense of wonder, Lightman introduces each landmark work with a crystalline essay elucidating the personality and life of each scientist and the significance of that scientist's paradigm-altering discovery. Lightman is especially sensitive to the suffering of Jewish German scientists under the Nazis and of women scientists in the days of institutionalized misogyny, and he writes with remarkable insight about the psychological effect of such counterintuitive findings as Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Fluent in every field he explicates, Lightman offers unprecedented commentary on each paper's style of reasoning. And how extraordinary to hold a single volume containing papers by Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Henrietta Leavitt, Linus Pauling, Edwin Hubble, and Barbara McClintock. This brilliantly conceived and assembled treasury belongs in every library. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 594 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (November 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037571345X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375713453
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #549,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alan Lightman, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences since 1996, is adjunct professor of humanities at MIT. He is the author of several books on science, including "Ancient Light: Our Changing View of the Universe" (1991) and "Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists" (with R. Brawer, 1990). His works of fiction include "Einstein's Dreams" (1993), "The Diagnosis" (2000), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and, most recently, "Reunion" (2003).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on September 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
If you want an introduction to the major scientific discoveries of this century, this is a good place to start. Of course there are going to be those (as mentioned in other reviews) who dispute some of the claims of the discoverers featured here. That in itself is nothing new since science is nothing if not self-correcting and redefining.

The format is simple - an introduction that includes a short biography and an attempt to set the discovery in its cultural context. Following that is a description of the discovery and the thought process behind its discovery. Accompanying each article is the relevant paper by the actual scientist. One of the best aspects of the book was the explanation of that paper - whethter the approach was theoretical or experimental, how deeply past references were cited, etc. This is a good, solid read - nothing spectacular but a good overview.
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103 of 131 people found the following review helpful By M. Janssen on December 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I am teaching a history of science survey at the University of Minnesota and picked up this book thinking I could use it to assign some famous original papers to my students with readable and reliable introductions. Boy, was I wrong. Spot-checking the book in my area of expertise, Einstein (which, I may add, is supposedly also one of the author's areas of expertise), I quickly turned up a few howlers so bad as to make this book completely unfit for classroom use. In section 4, on special relatiivty, Lightman calls the Michelson-Morley experiment "one of the most important scientific experiments of all time" and claims that Michelson "was awarded the Nobel prize for his "failure" [to detect the earth's motion through the ether]" (p. 62). In a famous article first published in 1969 and still readily available, Harvard historian Gerald Holton disposed of this myth of the Michelson-Morley experiment ("Einstein, Michelson, and the "Crucial" Experiment." Isis 60 (1969): 133-197. Reprinted in Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Rev. Ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 279-370). Lightman appears to be blissfully ignorant of the literature on the history of relativity. Section 1 on Planck is even worse. On p. 3 of his book, he writes, eloquently but even eloquently stated falsehoods are false: "The seemingly smooth flow of light pouring through a window is, in reality, a pitter-patter of individual quanta, each far too tiny and weak to discern with the eye. Thus began quantum physics." In a controversial book first published in 1978, Thomas S. Kuhn argued that Planck did not quantize much of anything and that quantum physics only started with Einstein in 1905 (Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912. 2nd ed.Read more ›
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Samer Ismail on March 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I'm surprised that a book like this wasn't published sooner; this book does an excellent job of collecting some of the landmark papers of 20th-century science. It's a shame that, in aiming this book towards a non-scientific audience, Lightman and/or the publishers felt the need to abridge the longer articles; at least it is clear where such abridgments have been made, and citations to the original publications are made.

I have to agree with Mr. Janssen below that there are some significant issues with the background material that Lightman provides. For example, in discussing the Meitner/Frisch paper on nuclear fission, he talks about "isomers" instead of "isotopes." Similarly, in the chapter on neurotransmitters, he refers to individual nerve cells simply as "nerves," saying "nerves do not touch." As one more example, in the chapter on background radiation, Lightman describes "that surreal meeting" that took place in 1965, apparently referring back to an earlier event in that chapter; nothing in the chapter, however, indicates why it could be called "surreal."

[On the other hand, in Lightman's defense, he does *not* claim that Planck proposed quanta of light; he simply uses light as an intuitive example of the quanta of energy Planck did propose.]

I can't enthusiastically recommend this book, but it's probably worth borrowing from the library.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Steve Pilgrim on December 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Faithfully relying on the original papers and the earliest documentation of scientific discovery, Alan Lightman provides a sensational book about the breakthroughs in science that shaped the 20th century. Lightman carefully avoids the "revisionist histories and editorials" about these discoveries and, instead, takes you to the original work that was done in a broad variety of fields including - but not limited to - quantum physics, hormones and antibiotics. Part history book, part textbook and part passionate insight, Lightman's treatment of 25 great articles of science is simply outstanding. Whether you hold advanced degrees in technical matters or you merely wish you had studied a little harder, this book will bring a fresh appreciation of scientific discovery.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dejan on February 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is indeed an interesting book and I enjoyed reading it. Like any other top list, this one as well can be criticized for inclusion of one scientific breakthrough and exclusion of another. However, this book should be praised for asking us, or even inspiring us, to think about the real people behind some of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, and to read their own words, their doubts or even speculations. Personally, as a cancer biologist, I rarely read scientific papers written before 1980. This book does an excellent job in reminding us that final results are not always the only thing that matters. It also does an excellent job in helping us understand that, using the author's words, "the first reports of great discoveries of science are works of art. Like poetry, these papers have their internal rhythms, their images, their beautiful crystallizations, their sometimes fleeting truths." They allow us to "...gaze into the mind of a great scientist in a way that no summaries or commentaries can ever provide."
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