View Full Version : On Giants' Shoulders

14th September 2004, 02:44 AM

Title: On Giants' Shoulders
Author: Melvyn Bragg


My review, while not particularly detailed in specific examples from the text, will hopefully be insightful to this book.

First, this is what some may call a hybrid text. It is a bibliography of 12 famous scientists and their discoveries, but is also Melvyn Bragg's opinions on them and his journey of intellectual discovery.

On Giants' Shoulders began as a radio series and because of its popularity, was turned into a book. Bragg's ultimate goal throughout the book is to further his understanding of science through the individuals who shaped it. He suffered a great disenfranchisement with science while he was a child due to the way it was taught in school. He now wants to participate in current intellectual discussion with the scientists of today. But he does not want to undertake this journey alone, he wants to include the reader/listener. The format of the book is generally interviews tied in with his understanding. Bragg interviews people such as Richard Dawkins, John Gribbin, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks and Martin Rees in order to convey his opinion.

The '"Great Scientists" Bragg studies in detail are Archimedes, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Antoine Lavoisier, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Jules Henri Poincare, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and James Watson.

While this claims to be a book about "great scientists and their discoveries", On Giants' Shoulders tends to sway toward the private lives of the scientists and their experiences. A perfect example of this is his chapter on Albert Einstein. Instead of focusing on his discoveries, he delves into little known facts about Einstein.

Bragg also uses 'anecdotal evidence' to display what he is trying to say. Such chapters as the Archimedes chapter show this. Archimedes jumps out of his bath yelling Eureka! when he makes his discovery, evidence like this is not historically provable but nonetheless provide an insight into Bragg's tone for the rest of the novel.

Bragg is concerned with two things in the novel. First, he is interested in researching the way the scientists made their discoveries. The question he asks is, 'Are great reconceptualisations made through a process of intellectual discovery, or do they result from a moment of pure inspiration, the aformentioned "Eureka Moment".' He raises several points on both sides but the question still ultimately remains unanswered in this reviewer's eyes.

Second, Bragg wants to know whether science is just a natural progression for human beings, where the individual scientists aren't really important, or whether science is only pushed forward through the efforts and intellect of the great scientists. Bragg tends to lean toward the latter idea in this book,

Another issue that one might raise with this book is the inclusion of only one women, Marie Curie (Think the giant old lady in The Simpsons that bart dreams of, with laser eyes, tearing up the city :) ). This is really saying something about the state of our society and the assumed role of women in science. But this review does not aim to address those issues.


The book, while a mildly interesting read for one my age, will appeal to those older and interested in science and biographies. I am more interested in the actual science. Personally, I found it boring and found it hard finishing the book. I know of many that agree with me (not just seventeen year olds). Apparently reading the book a second time is more interesting but i just don't have the patience.

Overall, a decent read, but fails to grab the attention of young people.

My Rating: 6/10

~Chris Cahill