An astrophysical wisecrack goes, “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to discover they are not it." Among the visionaries in Science Firsts, a slim volume of chronological sketches from ancient Greece to the present day, are many wholly destroying the belief that we are the segregated hub of the cosmos. There are, of course, the usual suspects: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein. But happily, science writer Robert E. Adler profiles several poorly known mavericks who upset our conviction of a puffed-up, pristine existence—including a few women beyond the paragon of female scientists, the obligatory Marie Curie.
Adler’s remarkably compact portraits serve largely to prompt wider reading, and he offers a discriminating bibliography for each chapter. Because the current status of scientific thought is intrinsically the most provocative, Adler’s most engaging studies are of latter-day pioneers. Perhaps he should have re-thought his book as Poorly Publicized, Contemporary Science Firsts.
Among the notable modern sages, Adler includes Barbara McClintock, a Nobel prize-winning geneticist, who identified transposable sections of chromosomes in the 1940s, the decade before Watson and Crick hit on DNA’s structure. McClintock’s transposons dictate how cells differentiate in organisms as disparate as yeast, maize, and humans.
Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis upset Darwin’s theory of gradual, linear evolution in 1967 by offering something called endosymbiosis. Spinning a Darwinian theme, Margulis “details how the cells of plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms evolved through a specific series of symbiotic mergers between different types of organisms early in life’s history,” Adler writes. To Margulis, humans are not simply a naturally selected product of simian development; we are also a genetic and cellular amalgam of absorbed lowly viruses and bacteria.
In 1995, astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered the first planet outside our solar system, which was promptly followed by a variety of newly found extra-solar orbs. Adler remarks, “Mayer and Queloz show us that the ancient atomists were right—nature is capable of making many planets…[I]t may not be too long before an array of telescopes, orbiting in deep space, relays back to Earth the blue-tinged signature of a second living planet.” And maybe that will be the center of creation.
Admittedly Adler selects firsts of only Western history. But a project of nonetheless encyclopedic scope mandates that he make necessarily arbitrary choices, which exclude important breakthroughs. For example, Adler omits the deduction of dark matter in 1933, when a cluster of galaxies was observed to move considerably faster than the rate predicted by its detectable mass. Dark (or currently unrecordable) matter—the nature of which is still debated—either makes up a vast part of the universe (in which case, we’re composed of incredibly trivial stuff), or Newtonian laws need serious revamping.
Science Firsts also suffers from the lack of a consistent, binding premise—such as recognizing our place in the heavens. Adler concludes his small compendium with Ian Wilmot and Keith Campbell, the Scottish biologists who created Dolly the sheep, the premier animal cloned from an adult cell. This is a first, to be sure, but Dolly itself is not so much a large-scale revelation as it is the product of a tool for understanding animal development.