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Breakthroughs in Science is a collection of twenty-six brief essays or chapters—from three to seven pages—discussing the scientific contributions, inventions, or medical discoveries of thirty scientists, inventors, engineers, or physicians. Originally published as separate essays in Senior Scholastic (a magazine for young adults) beginning in 1959, each chapter focuses on either the contributions of a single scientist or inventor or the contributions of two individuals working independently on the same topic. In the book version, Asimov provides links between contributors and illuminates common themes, so that the chapters are somewhat integrated. Although each chapter could be read as an independent essay, reading them in order provides a deeper understanding of the individual scientists and inventors, as well as of the history of science and technology in general.

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With a few exceptions, the chapters are presented in roughly chronological order according to the year of the breakthrough. The exceptions are the misplacement of Edward Jenner’s eighteenth century discovery of vaccination (against smallpox) in the midst of chapters on nineteenth century science, and the chapter on evolution, which appears too late in the book. In both cases, the misplacement weakens the chapters and makes understanding the significance of the breakthrough more difficult. These chapters demonstrate the interdependence of the apparently independent essays.

Every chapter includes one or more illustrations, primarily of the scientist or inventor at work, each with a descriptive caption. The captions provide little information, however, about the apparatus or equipment shown in the illustrations. There is a useful index, but there is no bibliography, list of further readings, or references.

Of the thirty individuals, twenty-four were scientists or physicians and six were inventors or engineers. Twenty did their work during the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Only one is a woman, Marie Skodowska Curie, and she is included in a chapter with her husband, Pierre. One of the six Americans, George Washington Carver, is an African American. All the remaining twenty-three individuals are white, male Europeans.

The chapters are structured almost identically. Each begins with Asimov describing a major scientific or technical breakthrough, ranging from Archimedes’ science-based weapons that held off the ancient Romans to Robert H. Goddard’s liquid-fueled rocket. Asimov then supplies a brief sketch of the life of the individual and his or her research up to the point of the breakthrough. He then discusses in more detail the breakthrough introduced at the beginning of the chapter and completes the biographical sketch. Each chapter ends with Asimov placing the breakthrough in its scientific or technical context. He explains why it was important at the time and why it continues to be important. In some cases, the significance of the breakthrough is philosophical, but in most instances, Asimov points to practical results: the wiping out of diseases, the introduction of electrical power, the creation of new chemical products, or the development of atomic energy.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74

Goble, Neil. Asimov Analyzed. Baltimore: Mirage, 1972.

Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Hassler, Donald M. Reader’s Guide to Isaac Asimov. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont, 1991.

Moskowitz, Sam. “Isaac Asimov.” In Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction. Cleveland: World, 1966.

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. Isaac Asimov. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Patrouch, Joseph F. The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

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