Analysis

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Breakthroughs in Science is a brief and sprightly introduction to the history of science and to the lives of major figures in science and invention. The individual chapters betray their origin as magazine articles written explicitly for young readers: They are exactly the right length and tone to hold the interest of a young adult. Asimov is famous as a science popularizer and as a writer of science fiction and mysteries, especially in the form of short stories. His mastery of both the English language and the popularization of science is evident. Despite the briefness of the chapters, Asimov conveys the essential and necessary scientific information. Biographical information, however, rarely goes beyond the most superficial and anecdotal.

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Writing at a time when there was little scholarly work in the history of science, Asimov had few good sources upon which to rely, as mythology and hagiography dominated the literature. He succeeded in avoiding the most serious pitfalls. For example, he did not claim that Darwin was the originator of the theory of evolution, correctly indicating that Darwin was one of a long line of scientists with such a theory. Darwin’s contribution was the theory of natural selection and the weight of evidence that he developed for his theory.

Asimov also showed sensitivity in selecting his subjects, choosing more important, if lesser-known, scientists. For example, he covers the life of Joseph Henry, a leading American experimental physicist of the nineteenth century who has often been overlooked, rather than the better-known Benjamin Franklin. He also picked an African-American inventor and a female scientist long before it was fashionable to worry about the role of minorities in science.

Nevertheless, there are two major flaws in the concept of this book. First, by focusing on specific breakthroughs, it distorts the history of science, emphasizing the role of a single individual, experiment, or theory over the cumulative effect of scientific research. Second, the book confuses and confounds science and technology. Ironically, the author of the introduction to the book, Eric Berger, acknowledges one distortion: He admits that there are few, if any, “breakthroughs” in science. Scientific discovery is the result of individuals building upon the work of their predecessors. It is a gradual process, not one of sudden breakthroughs. As...

(The entire section contains 574 words.)

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Critical Context