On Giants’ Shoulders focuses on twelve scientists who, in the last 2500 years, changed the world both as we see it and as we live in it." - Melvyn Bragg (emphasis mine).

On Giants’ Shoulders, compiled and written by the English author and radio identity Melvyn Bragg in 1998, is a series of radio interview transcripts which explore the history of scientific discovery. Under the auspices of chronologically-ordered chapters (titled according to the means by which each of the 12 scientists attained renown), Bragg consults a number of experts and contrasts viewpoints in order to render the seemingly-daunting world of science accessible to a broad audience through vivid figurative language and a tone which borders on gossip; where the pure science may seem tedious to the casual observer, the discussion invariably turns to scandal and rumour. The sensationalistic approach to science may seem to trivialise the matter (and perhaps it does, to an extent), but it also alerts the reader to the fact that:

“Science is not the cold outsider with all the answers but a shifting, fallible, human exercise intent on examining the meaning and purpose as much as the structure of life today. [Scientists are] messengers to and from the unknown.”

The introduction is primarily concerned with Bragg’s discussion of his own interest in science (and his inability to fully embrace it during his tutelage at a small, northern English grammar school), and an introduction of the source of the transcripts (Start the Week, BBC Radio 4) and a number of discussion points (the ‘geniustheory, the direction and purpose of science, the qualities which define ‘greatness’ and science’s potential for terror and widespread devastation in the form of the post-World War II nuclear debate). Then there are acknowledgements and an optimistic assessment of the presentation as having been a “marvellous enterprise,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Chapter listing:
Each chapter is accompanied by a timeline which summarises the main events in that scientist’s life (or, perhaps more accurately, in their career). While I do not wish to denigrate them, many focus on the same fundamental issues. Were these scientists deserving of their accolades? What ramifications did they have for the social and intellectual climate of the time? Indeed, how ought we to view them now? What were these scientists like as people? And so forth.

  • Archimedes (287 BC-212 BC): The First Scientist.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): The Columbus of the Stars.
  • Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727): Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.
  • Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794): The Revolution Does Not Need Scientists.
  • Michael Faraday (1791-1867): The Great Experimenter.
  • Charles Darwin (1809-1882): The Conservative Revolutionary.
  • Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912): The Man Who Discovered Chaos by Accident.
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): Science or Art?
  • Marie Curie (1867-1934): A Woman’s Place is in the Lab.
  • Albert Einstein (1879-1955): The First Celebrity Scientist.
  • Francis Crick (1916-present) and James Watson (1928-present): The Meaning of Life?
  • The conclusion is where the philosophy of science and change comes out to shine; the question posed by the title is “Where Are We Now?” No-one can know for certain whether the heyday of science is over or whether it is merely beginning. Bragg asks the question of two professionals and receives two very different responses. Science may be a “victim of its own success… [because] scientists are just filling in the details of this map of reality” (John Horgan, of the journal Scientific American) or perhaps the true greatness in science is in refining the ability to “ask questions… more perceptively, more incisively and more meaningfully” (John Maddox, formerly of the journal Nature). Are there no final answers because there are no final questions? Perhaps; we live in a world of change. It must never be forgotten that the physicists, biologists and astronomers of the last century thought that the achievements of science to that date were unconquerable too, although there must ultimately be some kind of limit upon the sphere of homo sapiens’ comprehension. Bragg admits that he is overwhelmed by the possibilities (artificial intelligence? Faster-than-light travel? A Theory of Everything?), but it is clear that he does not like the idea that science has limits. One can feel his passion for the unknown in the concluding statement:

    ”If we equate the age of the Earth to a twenty-four hour day, the first signs of life appear after the twenty-third hour and human beings emerge in the last few minutes before midnight. The analogy of a clock is often used. It seems to me to carry a fatal pessimism. For when midnight strikes - is that not the Apocalypse, the end of everything? Why could our few minutes not be the first of another fifteen billion year adventure? Because - as we have seen - in a mere hundred generations, since the Greeks, the scientific component of the human brain has unleashed itself from superstition and ignorance and is now launched on an astonishing mission whose purpose, it seems to me, is no less than to seek out its Maker.”

    Read it.

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