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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Biographies Reveal Tragedies, Triumphs of Science Pioneers

According to legend, Faust was a 16th-century magician and alchemist who sold his soul to the devil for eternal youth, knowledge and power. What makes him relevant today is that scientists appear to hold the secrets of heredity and dream of cloning human beings and prolonging life indefinitely.

Another legend that resonates in the 21st century is Prometheus and the theft of fire. Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. As punishment, Zeus chained him to a rock and sent a huge eagle to gnaw at his liver. However, Prometheus wouldn't submit to Zeus and was eventually rescued by Hercules. Like many a great scientist, Prometheus challenged current thinking and was unrepentant in doing so.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (Knopf, 2005).

This is the best biography so far of Oppenheimer, the gifted physicist who headed the Los Alamos project that was responsible for the atomic bomb in World War II. Nominated for the National Book Award, it was a quarter of a century in the making.

Oppenheimer was an intensely charismatic figure who was blessed and cursed with a great education. Along with other sons and daughters of wealthy Jewish families in early 20th-century New York City, he was sent to the Ethical Culture School. There he was encouraged to develop an ethical imagination and to see things not as they are, but as they might be.

In the 1930s as a young professor at Berkeley and Cal Tech, he flirted with communism and the union movement. And after the war, he expressed his resistance to the nuclear weapon strategies of the U.S. military and political leaders.

In 1953, during the McCarthy hearings, Oppenheimer was accused of being soft on communism and was effectively exiled from political power.

Although he continued to be Albert Einstein's boss at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Oppenheimer had been mortally wounded by the vultures of power and died of throat cancer 14 years later. Tragically, there was no Hercules to rescue him.

Descartes' Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel (Broadway, 2005).

Rene Descartes was the French philosopher who came up with the phrase "Cogito ergo Sum" or "I think therefore I am." He was also famous for his statement that before one can know anything for certain, one must first question everything.

However, in this book written for a popular audience, we also learn that Descartes was probably a member of the secret order of Rosicrucians and compiled a secret notebook, where he tried to figure out geometrically the reference to "666" in the Bible's Book of Revelation.

Living during the first half of the 17th century, Descartes was an independently wealthy and well-traveled man. Not only a great philosopher, he was a mathematician of genius and invented the Cartesian system of locating a point on a graph using Cartesian coordinates. He effectively invented analytic geometry, making way for the invention of the calculus by Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton.

The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart (Norton, 2005).

It so happens that 25 years. after the death of Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz traveled to Paris to find and copy pages from Descartes' Secret Notebook.

Leibniz was something of a rascal who presented one face to those in power and another in the privacy of his study. He publicly condemned the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, who was vilified as an atheist and renegade who dared to question the authenticity of the Scriptures, but secretly carried on a correspondence with the Dutch iconoclast. The reason Leibniz was interested in Descartes' writing was to make sure that his French predecessor's writings did not infringe on his invention of the calculus.

It is obvious that the author Matthew Stewart greatly admires Spinoza, for we discover on the book jacket that, although still a young man, he has retired from the management of a consulting firm in order to pursue of life of contemplation. Spinoza did likewise, though he had to keep his day job of grinding lenses for microscopes and telescopes.

Reading about Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza reminds us that being a philosopher with Faustian ambitions was a dangerous occupation in the 16th century. The fate of Galileo, who spent the last decade of his life under house arrest, was a warning to colleagues not to be ignored. Spinoza got away with his rebellion because, even then, Amsterdam was a liberal city.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.