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Know your scientists

BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF SCIENTISTS Edited by Trevor Williams Publisher: Harper Collins Price: L25

 
By Rakesh Kalshian
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Keeping out the women: Sophie< Most biographical dictionaries are inevitably born obese and tend to grow fatter with every edition. But this established reference work is comfortably lightweight, even in its 4th reincarnation.

The most noticeable change from the third edition, which has been out of print for several years now, is the inclusion of some 250 entries -- mostly living scientists like Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick and S Chandrashekhar. In fact, only a couple of works of this kind include living luminaries.

Its 600-odd pages are splashed with biographical sketches of more than 1,300 scientists, right from the days of ancient Greece to the present. However, the profiles could have been peppered with little-known curiosities about the scientists. The term scientist has been defined broadly to include mathematicians, physicians and technologists. Although the editor claims not to have been biased in favour of Western scientists -- and in all fairness, he does stick to his principle to a great extent, as borne out by entries such as India's Ramanujan and Russia's Dmitry Mendeleef -- he has made some blatant omissions from India.

Glaring omission
The most glaring is that of Jagadish Chandra Bose, the early 20th century physicist who invented an instrument called crescograph, which could record the responses of a plant to various stimuli. Also ignored are medieval Indian scholars like astronomers Bhaskaracharya and Aryabhat and the algebraist Brahmagupta, while he has taken care to remember ancient Greek and Arabian scholars like Thales of Miletus and algebraist Muhammad Ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi have been carefully remembered.

The editor has also dared the feminists, perhaps unwittingly, by ignoring 4 famous women mathematicians. Aspasia was a Greek mathematician said to have been burnt to death on charges of heresy in the 5th century BC. The Russian Sofya Kovalevskaya, presumably the first woman Ph.D. holder in Europe, made important contributions to the theory of differential equations and number theory. The French Sophie Germain is known for her limited proof of the notoriously elusive Fermat's Theorem. Lastly, the German mathematician Emmy (Amalie) Noether, whose innovations in higher algebra earned her the reputation of being the most creative algebraist of the 20th century.

Despite these glitches, the dictionary is a handy guide for students, teachers and curious laypersons. It has a subject index that is a ready reckoner on experts in various fields and an anniversary index that records the birthdays of scientists.

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