Innovators: 16 Visionary Scientists and Their Struggle for Recognition―From Galileo to Barbara McClintock and Rachel Carson
“a solid introduction to how, despite long odds, knowledge evolves.”
In a time when politics trumps knowledge and thoughtful analysis, Donald Kirsch’s Innovators is a needed reminder of the beneficial power of curiosity and patience, and the strength of science as a method for understanding the world.
Kirsch focuses on a narrow range of scientific innovators, ones who “change the way we think about how the world works.” Innovators is grounded in what’s become known as physicist Max Planck’s cynical principle that science progresses one funeral at a time. To which Kirsch adds that “important new findings aren’t based on a single result but rather on a large body of data that supports the new idea and eliminates a long list of possible alternate explanations.” Then comes the “real work” of changing the minds of scientists who are “by culture and training resistant to accepting anything new without overwhelming evidence.”
Kirsch doesn’t explore the psychology of creativity and innovation, but rather highlights the intellectual steps his 16 visionaries took to open the door to a new room in the library of human knowledge. Each chapter also provides a context for where science was before and after these visionaries challenged our understanding of the world. Their lives and accomplishments, however, don’t necessarily prove Planck’s dictum that old scientists need to die for new ideas to be born.
David Cushman and Miguel Ondetti, who created new medicines for hypertension, were blocked not by old guard scientists but the economics of a pharmaceutical industry weighing potential profits against actual losses.
Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking work in genetics were nearly lost due to the limited communication technologies and networks of the early 19th century. His name possibly wouldn’t be known at all had not Hugo de Vries, who was on the verge of announcing his own research in genetics, unexpectedly discovered Mendel’s studies, which had been published decades earlier in an obscure journal and soon forgotten. De Vries had the courage and integrity to bring Mendel’s papers before the scientific community.
Similarly, Amedeo Avogadro’ realization that atoms could combine to form molecules would have been lost to history had not his long-ignored studies been favorably quoted in a scientific paper highlighted on the last day of an 1860 chemistry conference. While Alfred Wegener’s ideas on what we now know as continental drift were scorned while he was alive, Roger Revelle’s early research on global warming led to national and international renown in his lifetime.
Clearly, death isn’t the only way science advances. Also required are a belief in one’s own work (Surendra Nath Sehgal surreptitiously stored his biological samples in his basement freezer for twenty years until management change at his pharmaceutical company permitted him to pursue revolutionary research in immunosuppressive drugs), colossal persistence (McClintock), the ability to weave information and techniques across scientific domains (Mendel, Wegener, and Rachel Carson, among others), a capacity for logical analysis, and a skin thick enough to repel scorn.
Every innovator Kirsch presents deserves his or her own book, if not several. Given his background, Kirsch skews to the medical and biological sciences and includes several Nobel Prize winners, which arguably narrows the diversity of innovators who could be highlighted. Some, like Galileo, are so well-known that Kirsch’s brief overview can’t match longer explorations of their scientific and other struggles. Despite these stumbles, Innovators is a solid introduction to how, despite long odds, knowledge evolves.