The 20th century produced an unprecedented avalanche of scientific discoveries — more than enough to make selecting a mere two dozen or so of the period’s greatest breakthroughs a daunting project. But that is the task Alan Lightman assigned himself for his new book, “The Discoveries” (Pantheon), a work that surveys exactly 22 crucial achievements in science from 1900 to 1972 and chronicles the lives of the men and women responsible for them.
The result is an intriguing mix of the famous and the unfamiliar. Some chapters in ‘“The Discoveries” assess legendary figures and ideas with mass-culture currency, like Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Others discuss scientists almost unknown in their own time-and ours-such as Henrietta Leavitt, a Harvard astronomy researcher of the 1910s, whose work helped measure the size of the universe and establish the fact that it is expanding.
But Lightman, a trained physicist, prolific author (his works include novels, essays, and histories of science), and adjunct professor of the humanities at MIT, says he was less concerned with generating a standard greatest-hits checklist of discoveries than illuminating the thoughts of the scientists in question. ”I wanted to tell the human story of each discovery and not just the science itself,” explains Lightman.
Indeed, in the essays he devotes to each discovery, Lightman weaves in biographical sketches of the scientists while deftly unpacking the lines of thought in their breakthrough papers-25 of which are also reprinted in ”The Discoveries” (three discoveries involve two papers each). A central motif in the book, as in other of Lightman’s works, is that solving scientific problems is not just a matter of plugging in numbers or grinding through experiments, but requires bursts of creativity, which feed a larger ”exhilaration of discovery” scientists share with pioneers in other areas of endeavor. ”The same pattern often occurs in artistic discovery,” said Lightman, who-speaking of creative impulses-was in Chicago when we reached him, for the opening of a theater production of his 1994 historical novel, ”Einstein’s Dreams.”