Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review 337: Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN INVENTIONS AND DISCOVERIES, by Rodney Carlisle. 502 pages, illustrated. Wiley, $40.

I stopped reading Scientific American magazine 20-something years ago when the editors dumbed it down. Occasionally I sample an issue to see if they have changed their minds, but it remains nearly worthless.

I suppose it retains some social prestige from its early history, however, or why would anyone publish a hefty volume called “Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries.”

Perhaps 90% of the book is unexceptionable; dull, but not remarkable except for a few howlers, like having Columbus discover North America or neglecting to mention Grote Reber in the entry on radiotelescopes.

But for a book that claims to list “all the milestones in ingenuity -- from the discovery of fire to the invention of the microwave oven,” it is a complete bust.

I would propose that the seven modern discoveries that have done the most to alter the way we live or think of ourselves in the world are: recognition of the great age of the Earth, modification of species through natural selection, germ theory of disease, induction of artificial immunity with vaccines, recognition of the size of the Universe, discovery of antibiotics and confirmation of the Big Bang theory by measuring the cosmic background radiation.

You might add to the list but I doubt anybody except Rodney Carlisle would leave any of these off. He left off six of the seven, getting in only an inadequate pair of entries on penicillin and streptomycin.

He did include the safety razor, the escalator (but not the elevator!) and the zipper.

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