Ever dream up a brilliant idea, only to discover that another dreamer not only came up with the same idea but had the forethought to either publish or develop it? No? Well, you haven’t lived in my world or that of these five other brilliant scientists. OK, so I’m not a brilliant scientist. I’m a brilliant engineer who knows the self-satisfaction of daydreams becoming wonderful revolutionary devices. But those devices lie fallow on the drawing board of my life because I don’t have the chutzpah to patent and promote them to the world. I guess that makes me a not-so-brilliant engineer after all.
Anyway, I do know the sinking feeling that accompanies having allowed an idea to be one-upped and thus have my invention “stolen” by a self-promoting scumbag who doesn’t even realize I exist. So I was gratified after reading this book (Full Disclosure: The author is my first cousin.) to learn that other, even more brilliant people floated in my boat and that they are now attaining at least a modicum of posthumous fame that will forever elude me.
Here are some “DON’TS” I learned from Ira’s revealing and easy to read book:
• Don’t publish your solution to Einstein’s equations in French in an obscure journal even if you are a priest. Someone else (Hubble) will “steal” (in quotes because Hubble did his work independently) your ideas and get a space telescope named after him.
• Don’t be a woman who volunteers to work 8 years for a misogynist before receiving minimum wage. That Hubble dude and one of his buddies will use your work to discover there are other galaxies out there besides the Milky Way.
• Don’t be a Nazi if you want recognition – Nobel Prize anyone? – for your scientific achievements. And don’t be a stutterer if you want to communicate your ideas.
• Don’t be too far ahead of your time and propose radical, “wacky” ideas, especially if you have an abrasive personality. All of your peers will consider you crazy. And don’t call them scatterbrains. It just makes matters worse.
• Don’t jump out of a balloon 19.5 miles high if one of your gloves has sprung a leak on the way up. Your hand will swell to twice its normal size and circulation will stop. If you’re lucky, your hand will recover a few hours after landing. But don’t bet on it. I think I must have learned that trivia elsewhere because now I can’t find it in this book. Oh, well. Now you know a bit more too.
A couple of nits require picking here:
1. On the first page of Chapter 3 under The Early Years of Leavitt, the first sentence begins, “Born in on July 4, 1868…” Apparently omitted between “in” and “on” during editing in both this eBook and the Decoded Science article, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts.
2. Joe Kittinger is described as the actual first man in space prior to Yuri Gagarin. But Yuri ascended over 200 miles and even orbited Earth while Joe reached just shy of 20 miles and simply fell back down without requiring any type of retrorocket to begin his descent. Had Yuri done the same he would have waited a month for Earth’s gravity to drag him back from space. Most scientific definitions of the beginning of space range from 50 to 110 miles. So 20 miles, although high, doesn’t seem remotely spacey to me or even on the edge of space. Perhaps in 1961 it was considered slightly spacey but it sure wasn’t anywhere close to orbital.
This book is good fun to read as well as quite informative. Even though I had prior knowledge of some of the folks described in it, I was surprised at the wealth of scientific information provided in a book aimed at a general audience. Not having to pore through and interpret equations and a bunch of mathematics was actually a relief since it wasn’t like reading physics course material. And we all know how much fun that was. Oh, wait… it was kinda fun. Well, maybe just for me and my cousin. Other technical nerds as well as laymen should benefit from this more biographical approach to scientific discovery. Perhaps it will lead others to search for more unsung heroes in other fields.
I wanted to give this book 4½ stars but only full stars are allowed. So I am in a quandary between 4 and 5 stars. I will have to go with 4 because this is kind of a thin book that covers only 5 unsung physicists. I’m guessing there are a lot more out there who deserve some singing about. And maybe I feel that there should have been at least a smattering of equations and mathematics with some clear explanations to bring laymen up to speed. Perhaps I would have learned something also since I took just engineering physics courses and I didn’t do too well in deciphering quanta. Then there’s all that quarky stuff that everyone ought to know.