cover image The Discoveries: The Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science

The Discoveries: The Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science

Alan Lightman, . . Pantheon, $32.50 (553pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42168-6

In this enlightening collection, novelist and science writer Lightman (Einstein's Dreams ) has assembled the original works announcing 25 of the world's pioneering scientific breakthroughs, coupling them with original essays to create a meditation on the "exhilaration of discovery." The lineup is a who's who of 20th-century science—Einstein, Planck, Fleming—ranging from quantum physics to astronomy, medicine, genetics and chemistry. Lightman is at his best when humanizing the scientists behind the world's major discoveries; he offers a stunning recollection from Caltech in the 1970s, when he was a graduate student, of Richard Feynman virulently attacking a world-weary Werner Heisenberg, author of the uncertainty principle, for a terrible lecture and, implicitly, for having worked on an atom bomb for the Nazis. Unfortunately, the heart of the collection, the landmark papers themselves, will prove to be stultifying and unintelligible for readers not well versed in science. Still, Lightman's elegant accompanying narratives are strong enough to carry the book. In an age when science is expanding at a faster clip than ever before, from supercomputing to cloning, this collection is a well-timed reminder of the humanity that surrounds and indeed drives scientific discovery. B&w photos. Agent, Jane Gelfman. (Nov. 8)