Books to Get You Thinking

Stepping back in time and tracing the history of technology and innovations, it is fascinating to see how some individuals, sparked by an idea, devoted their entire lives to pursuing that idea. Through their creativity, genius, single-minded purpose and determined effort, they were able to push the limits of science and technology, transforming the entire industry. This month we look at three such areas - aviation, medical science and physics - and some of their defining moments marked by towering personalities that dramatically influenced future trajectories of development in these areas. Mercer County Library has some outstanding biographies where the authors, through meticulous research, provide us with portraits of individuals who pursued a dream and then, battling against all odds, made discoveries that would change the future of mankind and the course of history forever.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
David McCullough, historian, author and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, enthralls readers once again – this time with a compelling portrait of aviation pioneers, Wilbur and Orville Wright. Readers also get a vivid picture of America in the early twentieth century, particularly of the Mid-West and Dayton, Ohio where the brothers spent most of their lives. Those were special times, a time when industry was flourishing and people were brimming with ideas and inventions. Through in-depth research, McCullough takes readers back to the early lives of the brothers, their deep relationship with their sister Katherine, and the important role played by their father in instilling in them a love of books and learning. An accident in the soccer field injured Wilbur and thwarted his plans to attend Yale – depressed, he turned to intensive reading that would later lead him to serious scientific inquiry into the mechanics of flight and to a lifelong dream of flying. Through their entire lives the brothers were inseparable, living and working together with an unyielding determination, patience and unity of purpose. They spent long hours researching birds in flight and the shape of the wings that allowed birds not just to fly but to soar. They had no backing from either the government or any academic institution nor any financial support for their research. The small bicycle repair shop that they owned provided them with the funds necessary for their explorations. The Wright brothers not only invented the airplane but also learned to fly it. Flying involved years of unwavering perseverance, courage and unmitigated risks where the brothers would go up in the plane they constructed up to a hundred times a year, constantly making adjustments to the design of the wings that would enable the aircraft to stay in the air. Ironically, neither the American government nor the media took any interest in this revolutionary machine. Participating in an air show in Paris, it was eventually the Government of France that recognized the enormity of this invention and from that day onwards the Wright Brothers became a legend for all times.

Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
Professor Emerita of medicine at Stanford University, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs has penned this vivid, biographical narrative of Jonas Salk, the physician scientist who invented the polio vaccine and was also instrumental in the development of the vaccine against influenza. Born to a Jewish immigrant family from New York City in 1914, Salk grew up sensitive, kind and an idealist, with a deep desire to do something that would make a difference to humanity. Jacobs traces the fascinating story and long journey of how Jonas Salk won the battle against polio, a disease that ravaged the world in the first half of the twentieth century, striking thousands of young children. In contrast to scientists, chief among them Albert Sabin, who were working with the live polio virus, Salk used polio virus killed with formaldehyde to develop an effective vaccine that would trigger the production of necessary polio antibodies. Researching vast amounts of archived material and conducting hundreds of interviews, Jacobs portrays the two opposing sides of the life lived by Jonas Salk. On the one hand he was revered and adored by the nation and media for finding a way to stop the dreaded disease of polio. At the same time he faced hostility from his rivals in the scientific community to the point that he was excluded from the large trial funded by the March of Dimes for testing the polio vaccine developed by Salk, and later was ousted from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies that he had founded in 1960. Throughout his life as a young medical student and later as a doctor, he countered opposition and hostility with dignity and an unmitigated resolve to carry on his work. Ironically, his work, while contributing significantly to medicine, left him with no time for his family. He remained lonely and never received the peer recognition and approval that he so richly deserved.

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik
Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik
Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer Prize winning author and longtime journalist at the Los Angeles Times, pens a compelling story of the life and times of Ernest Orlando Lawrence, the experimental physicist whose invention and development of the cyclotron in 1929 not only transformed particle physics but completely altered the course of science. Big Science is the use of enormous, complex, expensive scientific machines that often need government funding as well as huge laboratories and international collaboration between big teams of scientists. A recent example is the Large Hadron Collider, an accelerator seventeen miles in circumference costing ten billion dollars to construct, that was used in the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. Lawrence, a professor at Berkeley, was born in North Dakota and from his early years displayed an excitement for science and machines. It was during the time he was a professor of physics at Berkeley that he came up with the concept of a novel scientific device that would harness a combination of electrical and magnetic forces to bring about particle acceleration by propelling them in a spiral path through a vacuum chamber. This device was the cyclotron. During his lifetime, Lawrence focused on building bigger and more powerful cyclotrons that could be used to investigate the internal structure of an atom in greater detail and eventually help in the understanding of the building blocks of Nature. It would also lead to the discovery of new radioactive isotopes and the development of the atom and hydrogen bombs. Lawrence’s active role in the Marshall Plan and the development of nuclear weapons made him unpopular amongst his fellow scientists. Lawrence had a unique combination of scientific genius, talent for engineering and intuitive understanding of the principles of physics juxtaposed with a pleasing personality and a business acumen for building effective collaborations between physicists, chemists, doctors, and engineers while raising huge funding for his scientific ventures from businesses, philanthropic organizations as well as national governments. In 1939 Ernest Lawrence was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

-Nita Mathur

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