Editorial | Published:

Nature's twentieth-century highs

    Celebrating a book about discoveries that changed science.

    Every scientist, like Newton, stands on the shoulders of giants, but few stop to look directly at what those giants accomplished. The history and the documentation of all but the most recent of past discoveries is of concern only to historians, sociologists and scientists who are no longer actively engaged at the front line.

    That, at least, is a view held by most young researchers. But a new book warrants their attention and that of anyone else interested in science: A Century of Nature: Twenty-one Discoveries that Changed Science and the World (University of Chicago Press).

    Here we must declare an interest: the book is wholly devoted to this journal's content, and the editors of the book are, or were, colleagues. Laura Garwin was our North American editor and Tim Lincoln is our News and Views editor. But according to Freeman Dyson, “this book provides a much more solid basis for scientific literacy than the many popular books that are devoted to the latest scientific fad”, and Jared Diamond and Steven Weinberg have celebrated its coverage across the disciplines. So the book's editors can be proud of it and we can be grateful to them and promote it with a clear conscience.

    Some of the original papers almost leap off the page. The report in 1925 by Raymond Dart of his discovery of Australopithecus africanus, the first fossil link between apes and man, unabashedly presents a personal narrative. James Chadwick's report in 1932 of the discovery of the neutron has an almost casual brevity and informality about it that today's authors can only envy. In other cases it is the accompanying essays, many written by those working close to the original research, that bring the papers to life.

    But whatever the topic — plate tectonics, extrasolar planets, T-cell immunology, the ozone hole, the generation of animal body plans, cloning — the essays also entice the reader into a far greater appreciation of the work than can be obtained when it is transmitted through textbooks. This collection of seminal papers shows that, like much-reproduced great paintings, however one may have been impressed at secondhand, there is something uniquely inspiring about the originals.

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