Book Reviews

Some Noteworthy Scientific Pursuits

In my father's book collection I came across an old and aged book entitled, "Self Help" by Samuel Smiles LL.D. Second Edition, May 1866. Printed by John Murray, Albemarle Street West, London, 1918.

The author Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) was a British author and social reformer,born in Scotland. Smiles abandoned a successful medical career in Leeds to become a journalist. The book "Self-Help" has short biographies of some successful scientists. To quote from the Preface, "The object of the book briefly is to re-inculcate these old-fashioned but wholesome lessons – which perhaps cannot be too often urged – that youth must work in order to enjoy life, and that nothing creditable can be accomplished without application and diligence, – and that the student must not be daunted by difficulties, but conquer them by patience and perseverance, and that, above all, he must seek elevation of character, without which capacity is worthless and worldly success is naught" (this text-portion is in the words of Samuel Smiles himself). The scientists included in this write-up had the patience and perseverance to achieve their goal in the face of opposition, criticism, and ridicule by the world around.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642):
Born in Pisa in a poor household. His father wanted him to become a merchant, but recognized his talent and sent him to study at Pisa. Galileo here in his experiments showed that a pendulum of a given length swings at a constant frequency, regardless of the amplitude. Many years later he laid the foundation of the science of moving bodies – dynamics – through the story of his dropping weights from the leaning tower of Pisa, which perhaps is a legend. Galileo's work mainly depended on the telescope invented in 1608 by a spectacle-maker and improved by Galileo in 1609. Many before Galileo must have seen a suspended weight swing with a measured beat; but he was the first to the value of the fact. Once Galileo observed a person who had replenished oil in the lamp which hung from the ceiling of the Cathedral in Pisa. The lamp swung for a period of time. He noted it attentively, and at the age of eighteen he conceived the idea of applying it to the measurement of time. Fifty years of study and labor followed before he completed the invention of the pendulum. Once he came in touch with a Dutch spectacle-maker who invented an instrument which made distant objects appear nearer to the beholder. This led to the invention of the telescope, and proved to be the beginning of astronomy.

Galileo accepted the theory that the Earth was a planet, and that it revolved around the Sun, and not the center of God's universe. This theory along with that of Johannes Kepler laid the foundations for Isaac Newton's laws of motion. Upon this theory there was an inquisition in Rome in 1633 by the presiding Cardinal. The later years were spent by Galileo in fear of ridicule. His theories were condemned by the Catholic Church. On October 31, 1992, about 350 years later Galileo's theories were proudly acknoweledged by Pope Jon Paul II.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790):
He was a US scientist, and distinguished himself also as a statesman, writer, printer, and publisher. He proved that lightening was a form of electricity, differentiated it as positive and negative charge(s), and invented the lightening conductor. The skeptics of the time asked him, "of what use is it?" To which his reply was, "what is the use of a child? it may become a man". In addition he also carried out political assignments as the US ambassador to France. He helped in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804):
He was a British chemist, known for his work on the isolation of gases and the discovery of Oxygen in 1774 . By dissolving Carbon dioxide under pressure in water, he began a European craze for soda water. Priestley was drawn to Chemistry by a neighboring brewery He was 40 years old at that time, and knew nothing about chemistry and fermentation. He consulted books to ascertain the cause of fermentation, and continued his experiments with gases leading to the science of pneumatic chemistry.

John Hunter (1728-1993):
He was a Scottish surgeon, pathologist, and comparative anatomist. He received no education till he was 20 years old, and with great difficulty he was able to read and write. For some years he worked as a carpenter in Glasgow, and then joined his brother William in London who was working as a lecturer in Anatomy.John entered the dissecting-room as an assistant, and soon shot ahead of his brother. He was perhaps the first to devote his attention to Comparative anatomy. He worked as a surgeon to St. Georges Hospital, London, and also as the Deputy Surgeon-General to the army. As a result of his extensive work many surgical operations are attributed to his operative skill.

William Harvey (1578-1657):
He was an English physician, anatomist, and physiologist. He discovered that blood circulates in the human body in 1628. He labored for about eight long years before he published his views on the circulation of blood in humans. He repeated and verified his experiments, probably anticipating the opposition he would encounter from co-professionals. He confronted ridicule and utterances labeling him as a crack-brained person.

It is only after 25 years of pursuance that 'circulation of blood' was established as a scientific truth.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823):
He was a British physician, and pioneer for vaccination as a preventive measure against smallpox. In Jenner's days smallpox was a major killer. In 1796 he discovered that inoculation with cowpox gives immunity against smallpox. This breakthrough was based on his observation that people who worked with cattle contacted cowpox, and never subsequently contacted smallpox. Jenner in London studied under the great surgeon John Hunter. His findings met with sharp opposition by the profession. But before Jenner's death smallpox vaccination was being practiced throughout the world. The word 'vaccination' came from the Latin word for cowpox, Vaccinia.

The above matter has been decanted from the description of the scientific scenario graphically sketched by Samuel Smiles in his book "Self-Help".


More by :  Dr. Frank S. K. Barar

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