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Posts Tagged ‘Lives Of The Scientists’

This is the first book that I read for ‘Science September‘. I have had Kathleen Krull’s and Kathryn Hewitt’s book with me for a while – it was gifted to me by one of my favourite friends who got a signed copy for me when she met Kathleen Krull. I have been waiting for a special moment to read it and this was it.

Lives of the Scientists‘ gives brief biographies of twenty scientists. Around half of them are twentieth century scientists, while the others lived during earlier centuries. The book describes their work, but more importantly, paints a portrait of them as normal human beings, describing how they lived, and the interesting things they said and did. Each biography is between two to six pages long, and every one of them has beautiful accompanying illustrations which depict the concerned scientist and her / his work. The book features many of the major scientists that all of us know about, like Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but it also features important scientists that readers like me didn’t know about, like Caroline Herschel, George Washington Carver, Barbara McClintock, Grace Murray Hopper and Chien-Shiung Wu. Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize and so she is not exactly unknown, but I don’t know why I haven’t heard of her before, and I don’t know why she is not celebrated more. The book features a good number of women scientists, which is a wonderful thing.

There were many parts of the book which made me smile, like the description that Edwin Hubble was very handsome like a movie star, how when someone asked Einstein a question, and he didn’t know the answer, he replied, “I don’t know. I am no Einstein“, how Marie Curie disapproved of her daughter’s high heels, how one of the bosses of computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper once said, “Grace was a good man“, and how she later won the ‘Computer Science Man of the Year’ award (some of my friends would call that as ‘the day irony died’ 🙂 ). One of my favourites was about Galileo – how he insulted people who disagreed with him, including his own mother (and how his mother hauled him in front of the Inquisition for that), and how he was great at wielding insults – that particular part made me laugh 😁 You should read the book to find out why.

The book also touches on some of the issues that are faced by women in science – how typically a young woman’s family discouraged her from pursuing a scientific career, how if the young woman surmounted this, it was hard for her to get admission into the right college and course of study she wanted to pursue, how after all that it was hard to get a job as a scientist, and after she had climbed all those mountains, professional recognition still eluded her and her accomplishments were not recognized at the right time. This theme is a feature of the lives of all the women scientists featured in the book and their biographies bring that out very insightfully and beautifully.

The other interesting thing which came out in some of the biographies was how important the support of parents and family is to an aspiring scientist. For example, Edwin Hubble wanted to study astronomy, but his father, who was intimidating, forced him to study law (Can you imagine that? One of the greatest astronomers was trained as a lawyer!) and Hubble later taught Spanish in high school, and he could become an astronomer only after his father passed. It was unbelievable to read that and we have to really thank our lucky stars that one of the greatest astronomers really survived his parent’s bullying and became an astronomer by the skin of the teeth.

The scientist I felt the closest to, was Isaac Newton. It was really surprising, because I am not a big fan of Newton, though I admire him for his accomplishments, because he always felt like an unapproachable, unlikeable person to me. But it looks more and more to me that he was a person who liked being left alone, and who liked pursuing his intellectual interests in solitude, and he liked sitting in his room with a paper and pen / pencil in front of him and travelling to his intellectual worlds. Other scientists too loved solitude, like Marie Curie and Barbara McClintock, and even Charles Darwin kept away from fame, publishing his findings more than twenty years after he made his famous journey. But Newton seems to have been an extreme case of that. In today’s world, this kind of behaviour is not really appreciated, because what is expected and treasured today is teamwork and interpersonal skills and presentation and promoting one’s own work, and Newton was the very antithesis of that. He would have been totally out-of-place in today’s world, but he wouldn’t have cared about that, and I’ll always have a soft corner for him for that.

I loved ‘Lives of the Scientists‘. It is a beautiful introduction to the lives of many important scientists. It is a great book for both children and grown-ups. It is very inspiring. It looks like a deceptively simple book, but it has lots of layers and depth to it, which are revealed when we read slowly and contemplate on what it says. I have read and loved Kathleen Krull’s books before, and I have to say that this is one of my favourites. Kathryn Hewitt’s illustrations are so beautiful and gorgeous and they bring the stories alive on every page.

Have you read ‘Lives of the Scientists‘? What do you think about it?

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