The tragedy of the hockey team from Humboldt, Sask. led me to ask, “Who was Humboldt?” During these Covid times, I began to read biographies of famous scientists, including Alexander Humboldt, a 19th century explorer, adventurer and perhaps father of the environmental movement. The Humboldt Current off of South America is named after him as are a dizzying array of locations around the world. Forty-five biographies later, I am fascinated by both the similarities and differences among our brightest humans.
Many early natural philosophers were minor nobles or children of wealthy families such as Tycho Brahe, Robert Boyle, Christian Huygens, Antoine Lavoisier or Charles Darwin. Fortunately, some of these people were driven by curiosity about the universe to use their free time fruitfully. Other famous scientists, including Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Michael Faraday, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Thomas Edison, Ernest Rutherford and William Smith, were of humble origins. What is noticeable in this latter group is that some patrons recognized their brilliance and provided encouragement and introductions to prominent backers. Faraday, the inventor of both the electric engine and electric generator, was a poor blacksmith’s son apprenticed to a bookbinder. What better place to be for a poor, but brilliant boy to find books. The bookbinder recognized his energy and potential and introduced him to Humphrey Davy of the Royal Society.
One interesting aspect of biographies is the peripheral examination of the life and times in which the science developed. Day-to-day life of 17th-19th century scientists provided a window usually not discussed in history books. These biographies span a number of different countries, and I learned about the scientific contributions of the main contributors in Great Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy. The biographies of Pavlov and Ramón y Cajal provide windows into the history and politics of countries such as Russia and Spain, countries which were late to the scientific revolution. Politics caused the death of Lavoisier in the French Revolution. Galileo was imprisoned by the church in Italy, and Priestly was hounded out of Great Britain by his radical religious views. Even in modern times, Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, lost his security clearance during the McCarthy era. In addition, the lives of Nobel Prize winners such as Martin Karplus and Roald Hoffman are examples of Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi persecution.
In the absence of radio, television, movies and now the internet, the middle and upper classes amused themselves by going to lectures at the Royal Society as well as to plays and operas. Letters were the means of communications and I now pity future science historians who try to reconstruct biographies from emails and Twitter. Like now, science was an international endeavour in which letters and personal visits were the means of communication among the scientists. Despite this, great national rivalries existed as per the rival claims over the invention of calculus by Newton and Leibniz.
Inventors such as Edison, Marconi, Tesla and Dyson are specific examples of scientists who were obsessive about their ideas, like all the high achievers. Edison only slept four hours a night plus cat naps. Marconi invented practical radio transmission, despite many skirmishes over patents with other radio inventors. He also had a Canadian connection, as a visit to Signal Hill in Newfoundland would show.
Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and used his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes. There are other prizes that actually pay more money, but the Nobel is still the top prize for the simple reason that scientists such as Einstein (Physics), Curie (two Nobels, Physics and Chemistry) Watson and Crick (DNA Structure) and Pauling (two Nobels, Chemistry and Peace), to name a few have won the Nobel, while newer prizes do not have their illustrious company.
I find it amusing that some Nobel winners such as Einstein, Curie, Fermi (inventor of the nuclear reactor) and Watson and Crick are household names, but who (outside of physicists) has heard of John Bardeen? He is one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. He invented the transistor for one of his two Nobel Prizes in Physics (the other was for superconductivity). No iPhones, computers etc. would exist without Bardeen.
Marie Curie was a phenomenon for discovering Radium and Polonium and had these two elements named for her, but her fame also rested on the fact that she was the first woman so honoured. Some women, such as Gertrude Elion and Dorothy Hodgkin, won Nobels in Chemistry but only recently has the glass ceiling come down. More female scientists such as recent chemistry Nobel Laureates Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier achieved fame for discovering Gene Editing.
Their story was beautifully told in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Doudna. Isaacson learned lessons from his less successful biographies of Einstein and Leonardo. He imbedded himself in Doudna’s lab and successfully captured the science and excitement of a major breakthrough. Of course, this strategy is not possible with dead scientists. Other biographies that I found engrossing were those of Oppenheimer and Ramón y Cajal. Benjamin Ehrlich captured the life of 19th century Spain and Cajal’s discovery of the isolated axons and neurons of the brain. Unlike others, Ramón y Cajal was not a genius but his artistic skills and his single-minded focus on microscopic details contributed to his achievements. Some biographies, such as those of August Weissmann and Marcello Malpighi, described every cough, letter and idea that they had, and I found it tough going to finish. The weirdest biography was that of Edison. The author worked backwards starting with his death. I would only recommend it if one started reading it from the last chapter!
After scouring the bookshelves of Indigo for science biographies, I found some including Edison, Einstein, Dirac, Tesla and a few others among a sea of biographies of politicians, movie stars and sports figures. I had to find another source. My reading habits are such that I buy a book, but it may sit on my table for weeks before I get around to reading it. One fortunate aspect of Covid was the fact that the Toronto Public Library stopped charging fines for late books. They had quite a few science biographies, but I think I’ve exhausted their collection and perhaps, you readers!