Cover of Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
Book 61 General Science 1964
The Rest of the Robots A Short History of Chemistry
A mule
Asimov fan
A mule
Target reader

Do not read this book. Never, never even try to read this book.

Like The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, this is a major work from the 1960’s which Asimov periodically updated throughout his life. (Unlike the Guide to Science, however, he didn’t change the title every time.) There is virtually no reason, therefore, to read the original edition from the 1960’s over the third edition from the 1980’s.

In this case, however, there are even more reasons to avoid reading this book. The first is that the original edition used a bizarre organization scheme. The book consists of a number of short biographies of important scientists arranged in chronological order of birth. In the first edition (and the first edition alone) each biography may have a number of sub-biographies attached, biographies of relatively unimportant scientists.

In many cases, the dividing lines are rather vague as to who gets a main biography and who a sub-biography, and Asimov’s judgment can be questioned at several points (e.g., Euler is a second-rate mathematician?). In later editions, Asimov abandoned this arrangement.

And, of course, this book is virtually impossible to read. It’s a marvelous reference work, and the third edition I would consider to be enormously useful to anybody interested in the history of science. It makes, however, for lousy reading. The arrangement of the individual stories is so haphazard that the overall effect is very chaotic and confusing.

(Now, say you, why would anybody even think of reading a reference book like this one cover-to-cover? Say I, there are a few of us nuts out there. I have, for example, read each edition of the Biographical Encyclopedia cover-to-cover at least twice. I wince each time I do, and it is definitely the hardest book in my Asimov collection to read—but I do it.)

By the way, Asimov is also a tad liberal on whom he considers to be an important “scientist.” He means more “somebody who has had a significant impact on the development of scientific thought,” and, as such, includes people like Columbus.

Asimov also falls prey to what the professional historian of science refers to as “whigism,” the tendency to evaluate a historical figure’s work on the basis of whether or not we agree with it today. This is only to be expected, I suppose, from a popularizer, and Asimov actually does try to fight the tendency to a great extent. He is also rather eurocentric, but that is also no surprise. The massive work here remains, despite these minor flaws, a wonderful reference book and an excellent starting place for some quick information about major figures in the history of science—perhaps even (and I speak as one who has training in the field) for the professional historian of science.

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