Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry
Oxford University Press, 2008
400 pp., $33.95
Neil Gussman with Sarah Reisert
The Model Scientist?
Lewis was again nominated at the beginning of the1940s, but two decades of rejection and Palmaer's subversive work sealed his fate. Lewis died in 1946 in his own lab, in circumstances that led to speculation that he committed suicide. He had lunch with his old acquaintance Langmuir just hours before he died. Coffey believes that Lewis' death was an accident. Either way, it was a sad end to the life of a very great chemist.
A few pages into Coffey's complex and compelling tale, I flipped to the index and was very surprised that I did not find the name Istvan Hargittai. Hargittai is a Hungarian historian who has written extensively on the Nobel Prize itself, Nobel laureates, and some of the greats who did not get the biggest prize in science. His 2003 book The Road to Stockholm includes eleven chapters on the prize and its winners, then a final (and best) chapter: "Who Did Not Win." I have heard Hargittai speak about the subject of this chapter. He is direct and devastating in his judgments on why some of the greats in science were passed over for the big prize. Hargittai puts a human face on science (very much warts and all), which is missing from so much scientific biography.
Of course there has been a trend recently in scientific biographies to talk about lust in the lives of their subjects. We all know now that Einstein would not be named husband of the century. Erwin Schrödinger, known for the thought experiment "Schrödinger's Cat," created the Schrödinger equation, central to quantum mechanics, on a winter semester break. At the time he was having an affair with twin young women in one of his classes. He took one twin to the Alps and came back with the equation.
But while sins of the flesh haunt the lives of the rich and powerful, Coffey leaves these sins in the background to concentrate on the sins of the spirit central to their success or failure. It is Pride, Envy, and Greed that often make the difference between who gets the big prize and who doesn't.
Neil Gussman is communications manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and public affairs specialist for 2-14th Aviation, Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Sarah Reisert is the coordinator for awards and affiliate relations for the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
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