The Dis­cov­er­ies: Great Break­throughs in 20th Cen­tu­ry Sci­ence, Includ­ing Orig­i­nal Papers

  • Review
July 13, 2012

In the intro­duc­tion to The Dis­cov­er­ies, Alan Light­man notes that stu­dents of phi­los­o­phy read the orig­i­nal writ­ings of philoso­phers, polit­i­cal sci­en­tists read orig­i­nal doc­u­ments that influ­ence polit­i­cal sci­ence, like the Con­sti­tu­tion, and of course, stu­dents of lit­er­a­ture immerse them­selves in the writ­ings of the great clas­sics. How­ev­er, Light­man observes that stu­dents of sci­ence rarely read the orig­i­nal papers that mark the great dis­cov­er­ies in sci­ence. His rem­e­dy is a com­pi­la­tion of 25 sem­i­nal works that mark 22 of the great­est sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies of the 20th cen­tu­ry. These papers cov­er top­ics from the struc­ture of the atom to the expan­sion of the uni­verse and include great break­throughs in biol­o­gy such as the func­tion of the Krebs cycle and cross­ing over of chromosomes. 

Along with the orig­i­nal papers, many writ­ten by renowned Nobel lau­re­ates, oth­ers writ­ten by for­got­ten sci­en­tists, Light­man includes an intro­duc­to­ry essay for each top­ic. In a clear, infor­ma­tive and high­ly read­able style, Light­man begins each intro­duc­tion by set­ting the his­tor­i­cal stage for each dis­cov­ery. This includes polit­i­cal and social events of the peri­od, as well as a dis­cus­sion of the sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge that often accu­mu­lates before great dis­cov­er­ies. Light­man also pro­vides a short bio­graph­i­cal sketch that gives insight into the per­son­al­i­ties behind each of the dis­cov­er­ies. Most impor­tant­ly, Light­man walks the read­er through the sci­en­tif­ic papers them­selves, point­ing out key pas­sages and pro­vid­ing expla­na­tions for more arcane or spe­cif­ic sci­en­tif­ic details. This sec­tion of the intro­duc­tion removes some of the veneer from the papers, illu­mi­nat­ing the writ­ing so that the read­er can expe­ri­ence the orig­i­nal word­ing and the new­ly-crys­tal­lized descrip­tions of some of the most impor­tant con­cepts of mod­ern science. 

Where pos­si­ble, Light­man builds upon ear­li­er dis­cov­er­ies in his intro­duc­tion. This lends a sense of plot­line to the entire book, draw­ing togeth­er many of the great sci­en­tif­ic ideas of the 20th cen­tu­ry. The only neg­a­tive fea­ture is hand-drawn illus­tra­tions that, although clear, are not of the same pro­fes­sion­al qual­i­ty as the rest of the book. Nonethe­less, The Dis­cov­er­ies is a unique col­lec­tion, bring­ing togeth­er a pro­found selec­tion of orig­i­nal writ­ing and a lucid and infor­ma­tive col­lec­tion of intro­duc­to­ry essays that pro­vide a rare look at the minds and the set­tings that pro­duced the great sci­en­tif­ic break­throughs of the last cen­tu­ry. Includes pho­tographs, notes and an index.

Discussion Questions