Five hundred years of science and scientists, by astronomer turned prolific popular-science writer Gribbin (The Birth of Time, 2000, etc.).
Gribbin begins with Copernicus, a theorist who conducted no experiments and relied on the observations of others: a precursor rather than a scientist in the modern sense. Gribbin nominates William Gilbert, an Elizabethan Englishman, as the first true scientist, citing experiments that laid the foundation for an understanding of magnetism and electricity. Galileo knew Gilbert's work and adopted his methods, emphasizing experiment as the one sure route to scientific truth. Gribbin traces that theme through the lives and work of scientists down the ages. Refreshingly, he avoids the temptation to paint his subjects as unique geniuses, often pointing out cases such as Alfred Russel Wallace's independently duplicating the work of Darwin. Newton was driven by his intense rivalries with almost every other scientist of his day, notably Robert Hooke, the leading light of the Royal Society at the time when it lay on the cutting edge of discovery. The French Revolution was a dangerous time for scientists, leading to the death of Lavoisier, the founding father of chemistry; Cuvier, a central figure in biology, rode out the Reign of Terror by making himself an indispensable administrator. The opportunistic Benjamin Thompson changed his coat and his nationality numerous times, while performing work that led to a basic understanding of heat. Physicist George Gamow was an inveterate trickster who added a colleague's name to one of his papers to get a play on words. Gribbin entertainingly records their triumphs and eccentricities, the near-misses and the rival claims for precedence of the giants and the spear-carriers, always with a firm eye to the main story.
A thoroughly readable survey of scientific history, spiced by a brilliant and memorable cast of characters.