Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia
of Science and Technology

by Isaac Asimov

The Lives and Achievements of
1510 Great Scientists from
Ancient Times to the Present
Chronologically Arranged

  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

1964; 1972; Second Revised Edition 1982
Doubleday: New York
941 pages

March 2009

  
A most readable reference work

Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology is a fascinating reference. It is readable, or browsable, or reference-able. Isaac Asimov's presentation in chronological order shows the glorious sweep and progression of careful work and inspired thought.

Asimov's scope is the vast range of human science and technology. He seems equally at home in discussing theory and experiment and invention, medicine and chemistry and rocketry. He is a wonderful popularizer of any technical subject at any length. To acquire a quick grasp of what one of these people means to our scientific history, you can hardly get it more quickly. Yet Asimov does not write down to non-specialists: he writes clearly in reasonably non-specialist language.

If 1510 names seems a long list, making a thick book, it is. But it also is sobering and humbling to be reminded of how much is owed by the human billions to a relative handful of geniuses: inspired, lucky, persistent.

From a longer entry, on the foundational Aristotle:

... His views came to be regarded as possessing an almost divine authority, so that if Aristotle said it was so, it was so. By a queer fatality, it almost seemed as though his statements were most accepted when they were most incorrect.

This cannot be blamed on Aristotle, who was himself no believer in blind obedience to authority. Nevertheless, following the era of over-adulation, he became the very symbol of wrongness, and when the Scientific Revolution took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its first victories involved the overthrow of Aristotelian physics. In the centuries since, Aristotle has, as a consequence, too often been viewed as an enemy of science, whereas actually he was one of the truly great scientists of all time and even his wrongness was rational. No man should be blamed for the stubborn orthodoxy of those who many centuries later insist they speak in his name.

0029. Aristotle.
  

Representative mini-lists

I'll list a various few of my own personal favorites who find a place here. I give their sequential numbers (assigned by birthdate) as a reminder of the populous thoroughness of the book.

  • 0169. Johann Kepler — astronomer
  • 0474. Michael Faraday — physicist, chemist
  • 1008. Roald Amundsen — explorer
  • 1315. Willy Ley — engineer
      

Many of the names herein have become household words and scientific concepts, and it's nice to learn or refresh our memory of the brilliant and persistent individuals, and their (often multiple) accomplishments. Again, only a few:

  • 0415. Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss — astronomer
  • 0516. Charles Goodyear — inventor
  • 0609. Richard Jordan Gatling — inventor
      

Just to be a tad contrary, I'll toss out some interesting names that Asimov does not include, with a reason for exclusion Asimov might have given if queried:

  • ----. Roger Boscovich — physicist (too obscure?)
  • ----. Percy Bysshe Shelley — philosopher (incidental to his poetry?)
  • ----. Immanuel Velikovsky — analytic historian (charlatan?)
      

On the other hand, we have some folks whose presence might be challenged. Throughout, Asimov seems to be able to render a personal judgment well considered, to call them as he sees them when he thinks an opinion is helpful or important. In addition to sincere admiration or calm praise, he is quite capable of applying the descriptor worthless to more than one body of work, in whole or in part. Regardless, Asimov always is fair and clear.

  • 0314. Franz Anton Mesmer — physician (hypnotism)
  • 0865. Sigmund Freud — psychiatrist (psychoanalysis)
  • 1214. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko — biologist (inheritance)
      
Isaac Newton

The incomparable Isaac Newton receives a very long entry, the longest I think, a miniature scientific biography in itself. Asimov ends it with unique and deserved praise:

Newton had the virtue of modesty (or, if he did not, had the ability to assume it). Two famous statements of his are well known. He wrote, in a letter to Hooke in 1676,

If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

He also is supposed to have said,

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

However, other men of Newton's time stood on the shoulders of the same giants and were boys playing on the same seashore, but it was only Newton, not another, who saw further and found the smoothest pebble.

And then Asimov wraps this with a couple of lines each on Newton from Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth.
  

The grand spectrum

It is important to understand that Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology is a personal selection and an individual's work:

... from a number of comments I have received in connection with the first edition, I have detected some tendency to take it for granted that the book is a community endeavor and that I have headed a sizable team engaged in research and in writing.

This is not so! I alone have done every bit of the necessary research and writing; and without any assistance whatever, not even that of a typist. ...

And besides, the book is a labor of love, and I loved it far too much to want to share it in the slightest.
  

What a grand spectrum of the human potential.

  

© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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