Sunday, February 3, 2019

Super Scientists by Anne Blanchard

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a very confusing book because Net Galley has it listed as "by Anne Blanchard," as does the cover (with illustrations by "Tito") but the book itself internally lists it as "by Hervé Guilleminot & Jérôme Masi." Those latter two have written at least one book in this series, and I wonder if their names somehow got in there by mistake? It's very confused and one of many problems I ran into.

This initially seemed to me to be a neat and useful book giving brief details about well-known (at least to me!) and some lesser-known scientists, but the more I read of it, the less enamored I became. I was pleased by the inclusion of several female scientists, less pleased by the lack of scientists of color. I think that the problem is that the book focuses more on scientists of yesteryear, and less on more modern scientists. Carl Sagan is excluded, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is included, and I got the impression this was done solely to include a lone African-American scientist in the list (Brahmagupta is included and is a person of color, note, but he's Indian).

There were also multiple problems of errors in spellings or grammar in the text on the pages covering Darwin, Mendeleev,
Hawking, Tyson, and some others. On the Tyson page, for example, the text mentions gravity, but that refers to a movie title, so it should have an initial capital: Gravity. Strictly speaking, Einstein did not invent E=mc2, BTW, nor did he discover it. In fact he never used it in any of the papers which made him famous! He only made the formula famous by association.

To my knowledge it was first used by JJ Thomson around 1881, when he derived it inaccurately as E = 4/3mc2. Olinto De Pretto, an Italian, also derived it independently and equally inaccurately, but used 'v' instead of 'c' for the speed of light. It was used (although again with an error in it) by Friedrich Hasenöhrl before Einstein, and these people derived their work from earlier discoveries by such as Max Abraham, Oliver Heaviside, and Henri Poincaré.

There are confusing errors too, such as having Thales be the first to determine that the Moon merely reflected the sun's light, and then five or so pages later, having a different scientist, Zhang Heng, be credited with this primacy. This book definitely needs a serious effort at editing and correction. Some of the wording, such as that on Darwin's page is nonsensical. This may be because of translation errors or may be just sloppiness. Either way there is no excuse for it.

It brings together a brief assessment of the progress of science and the scientists who enabled it over the years:

  1. Thales
  2. Pythagoras
  3. Aristotle
  4. Euclid
  5. Archimedes
  6. Zhang Heng
  7. Hypatia
  8. Brahmagupta
  9. Avicenna
  10. Alhayzen
  11. Roger Bacon
  12. Nicolas Copernicus
  13. Galileo Galilei
  14. Johannes Kepler
  15. Isaac Newton
  16. William Harvey
  17. Rene Descartes
  18. Antoine Lavoisier
  19. Mary Anning
  20. Michael Faraday
  21. James Clerk Maxwell
  22. Charles Darwin
  23. Gregor Mendel
  24. Louis Pasteur
  25. Dmitri Mendeleev
  26. Ada Lovelace
  27. David Hilbert
  28. Marie Curie
  29. Ernest Rutherford
  30. Albert Einstein
  31. Neils Bohr
  32. Alfred Wegener
  33. Alan Turing
  34. Rosalind Franklin
  35. Vera Rubin
  36. Franchise Barre-sinuossi
  37. Tim Berners-Lee
  38. Stephen Hawking
  39. Neil deGrasse Tyson

I confess I am not sure what order the list is in exactly! Yes, it's chronological, but Tim Berners-Lee, who codified the World Wide Web, was born over decade after theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, yet he precedes him in the text, so maybe some chronology other than birth order is employed. That's a minor issue. You will notice that there is only 39 names in the list. This is because the fortieth is, inexplicably, the human genome project!<\p>

The single name most closely associated with that is Craig Venter, but evidently because he was running a private genome scan in competition with the public one, he gets no credit here. There are a lot of scientists who do not, including many of color who have made major contributions to science. Women are represented, but could be more so. Emmy Noether gets a mention, but not a page to herself, and Lise Meitner gets no mention at all, for example.

While as of this writing, no black scientist has won a Nobel prize (although many people of color have won one for endeavors outside of science) there are women and people of color who could have been mentioned for their contributions such as Samia Al-Amoudi, Alice Ball, Benjamin Banneker, Satyendra Nath Bose, George Washington Carver, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Charles Drew, Joycelyn Elders, Ernest Everett, Sunetra Gupta, Indira Hinduja, Manahel Thabet, and so on.

I think this book could have done a lot better in its selection, and it certainly could have been a lot better edited. Given it is what it is, I cannot commend it as a worthy read.