A lively parade of cranks, mystics, rebels, obsessives, and geniuses, humble or otherwise, whose discoveries and insights shaped today’s science and technology.
Grant’s choices for inclusion are, unsurprisingly, nearly all male, dead, and white. Moving chronologically, he begins with “semi-legendary Mediterranean mystic” Pythagoras and ends with climate-change activist James Hansen. In between he trots out luminaries from Hypatia (murdered by a Christian patriarch’s “Rent-a-Mob”) to the “totally unscrupulous toad” Francis Bacon, from James Clerk Maxwell, the “Scottish Einstein,” to Einstein himself. Nine women make the cut, but only Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar represent the world beyond Europe and North America. Still, Howard Florey, who actually found ways to produce the antibiotic that Alexander Fleming only happened to notice, isn’t the only figure here who’s not one of the usual suspects. Moreover, conventional as his selections are, the author realizes them with vivacity, lucidly describing their significant achievements and also drawing connections—between the ideas of Leibnitz in the 17th century and of visionary mathematician Riemann in the 19th to Einstein’s in the 20th, for instance. Each entry includes an old or photographic portrait and an afterword with leads to more information, plus references to novels, films, lunar craters, rock bands, and other pop-culture links.
Culturally blinkered but refreshingly opinionated and not without a few pleasant surprises. (index) (Collective biography. 12-16)