The Discoveries

Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science

Publisher: Vintage Canada
An extraordinarily accessible, illuminating chronicle of the great moments of scientific discovery in the 20th century, and an exploration into the minds of the remarkable men and women behind them.

We know and read the literary masterpieces; how many of us have had the opportunity not only to read but understand the masterpieces of science that describe the very moment of discovery? The last century has seen an explosion of creativity and insight that led to breakthroughs in every field of science: from the theory of relativity to the first quantum model of the atom to the mapping of the structure of DNA, these discoveries profoundly changed how we understand the world and our place in it.

Alan Lightman tells the stories of two dozen breakthroughs made by such brilliant scientists as Einstein, Bohr, McClintock and Pauling, among others, drawing on his unique background as a scientist and novelist to reveal the process of scientific discovery at its greatest. He outlines the intellectual and emotional landscape of each discovery, portrays the personalities and human drama of the scientists involved, and explains the significance and impact of the work. Finally, he gives an unprecedented and exhilarating guided tour through each of the original papers.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter 1

The Quantum

In his famous autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, published only a few years into the twentieth century, the historian Henry Adams shouted alarm that the sacred atom had been split. Since the ancient Greeks, the atom had been the smallest particle of matter,...
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“Deeply satisfying…. A remarkably thorough survey of scientific knowledge and advances throughout the 20th century.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Lightman’s essays on each [great discovery] are entertaining, revealing and absolutely essential.”
Toronto Star

“An intriguing mix of the famous and the unfamiliar…. Lightman weaves in biographical sketches of the scientists while deftly unpacking the lines of thought in their breakthrough papers.”
The Boston Globe

“Sparks curiosity as to what new doors will soon open – and awe as to how far science has come.”
San Francisco Chronicle

Praise for Alan Lightman and A Sense of the Mysterious:
"[Lightman’s] love and respect for both science and art permeate these luminous essays."
The Globe and Mail

"There is no better gift for a young, aspiring scientist than this little book of 11 essays, or for that matter for any nonscientist who wants to know what it feels like to be a scientist . . . [Lightman] is a scientist who is a humanist in the noblest sense of the word."
The Los Angeles Times Book Review