Books to Note: Summer 2008


Books to Note

Joseph E. Harmon; Alan G. Gross, editors. The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 312 pp, ills. $72.50 cloth, $29.00 paper.

In the introduction to this anthology, editors Joseph Harmon and Alan Gross describe the work as a sort of "Michelin Guide" to the development of the scientific article over the past four centuries. Their description is apt in that, like most guide books, The Scientific Literature offers highlights, interesting anecdotes, and recommendations rather than presenting its readers with much in the way of actual examples. (Alas, it does not offer a ratings system.) As befits a volume that grew out of an exhibition at the libraries of the University of Chicago, significant attention is devoted to such visual elements as tables, equations, and illustrations that have accompanied scientific texts since the scientific journal's birth in the 17th century. Although the selections are somewhat idiosyncratic and the excerpts all too brief, the editors' excellent sense of the telling detail make this volume a pleasure to dip into or to read from cover to cover. --Audra Wolfe

Daniel Rothbart. Philosophical Instruments: Minds and Tools at Work. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 160 pp. $32.00.

Philosophical Instruments investigates the importance of instruments in the field of science and offers a thought-provoking comparison of traditional instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, and other beautifully crafted brass and glass instruments with modern instruments such as scanning tunneling microscopes and diffraction devices. Scientists have been using instruments for centuries to advance their knowledge and understanding of the world, and with every new generation of instrument new understandings are reached and new information is gathered. An interesting facet of Rothbart's work is its attempt to persuade the reader to see the beauty and importance of instruments made of aluminum, nickel, and rubber rather than the more obviously visually appealing brass and iron. Rothbart reveals to the reader the interdependence between scientists and their tools; without tools, the scientist's job is exponentially more difficult, and without the scientist, the tool is useless. --Rosie Divernieri

István Hargittai. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. xiv + 313 pp. $34.50.

This fascinating and informative book relates the lives and achievements of Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene P. Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. These five brilliant Budapest-born, Europe-educated, Jewish physicists emigrated to the United States, where they contributed to some of the 20th century's most significant developments in theoretical and applied science. Called "Martians" by some American colleagues because of their shared foreign language and their extraordinary scientific brilliance, they were all politically active during and after World War II. Their scientific and political power was far reaching, influencing the rise of American military research and dominance in the 20th century and touching everyone from Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Budapest-born István Hargittai, a prolific Jewish physical chemist, has drawn on his personal relationships with the Martians, their families, and their contemporaries, as well as the primary and secondary literature, to tell a story of great scientific, historical, and human interest that had previously gone untold. --George B. Kauffman