I’ve got a ton of stuff that needs to get done this week, but I don’t want the blog to be completely devoid of new content, so here’s a quasi-poll question for my wise and worldly readers:

What scientist is most in need of a good popular biography?

By “popular biography,” I mean things like Norton’s Great Discoveries books, several of which Ive reviewed here, including Krauss on Feynman and Reeves on Rutherford, two books that I keep coming back to for useful tidbits. These aren’t deep works of historical scholarship, and don’t necessarily attempt to be definitive, but focus on being accessible and readable.

There are only a small number of these out there, though, and many important scientists don’t have this kind of bio yet. So, the question to be answered in comments is: who should get one of these sorts of books that doesn’t already have one?

I’ve been reading a lot of history of physics recently for the book-in-progress, specifically about the history of QED, and I think at this point, I’d probably vote for a Wolfgang Pauli biography. This may seem odd, as Pauli was a theorist’s theorist, who was so inept in the laboratory that some experimentalists once attributed a lab failure to the fact that Pauli was changing trains in their city at the time that their apparatus broke.

At the same time, though, the histories I’ve been reading put Pauli at or near the center of physics in the mid 20th Century– he contributed to all the major problems, and more importantly seems to have been a key communications nexus. Everybody working on quantum physics appears to have written to and gotten responses from Pauli. And he was pretty entertaining, in a witheringly sarcastic, quirky sort of way. The photo at the top, taken from Roy Glauber’s autobiography at the Nobel Prize website is a pretty good indication: Pauli was kicking a soccer ball around, and when he saw Glauber about to take a photo of this, he turned and kicked the ball directly into the camera…

So, I bet it’d be fun to read a good popular bio of Pauli. Somebody should get on writing one of those.

Who’s your favorite scientist who ought to get a good popular biography?


  1. #1 Tom Levenson
    June 18, 2013

    Maxwell. Amazing that there isn’t a good public biography of the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    June 18, 2013

    That is pretty amazing. I assumed there must be a good Maxwell bio out there somewhere.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    June 18, 2013

    Barnum Brown, dinosaur hunter extraordinaire. At least there wasn’t a good bio of him 12 years ago when my son had to do a class project on him.

  4. #4 Nick Theodorakis
    June 18, 2013

    I nominate Gilbert Lewis, the chemist who never won a Nobel who deserved one the most.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    June 18, 2013

    Anybody who was important enough to get an SI unit named after him deserves a good pop-science biography. There is some value in knowing, for example, why pressure is measured in pascals. Some of them already do, such as Newton. But many of them don’t, at least that I am aware of. The candidate list includes Watt, Joule, Ampère, Coulomb, Henry, Siemens, and a few others.

  6. #6 Paul
    June 18, 2013

    I vote for Wolfgang Pauli and for Werner Heisenberg.
    Maxwell already has recent biography by Basil Mahon “The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell”

  7. #7 cope
    June 18, 2013

    Just showing my geocentric nature here (if non-physicists are not being excluded from your list) but Alfred Wegener hits a lot of bullet points. The profession of geology derisively dismissed him, his commitment was unequaled (how many other great scientists have actually died trying to gather data to support their ideas) and he was posthumously proven to be correct. Also, too, there is the crossover nature of his academic pursuits from the area of his initial expertise (meteorology/climatology) to a subject born simply out of his natural born curiosity, geology.

  8. #8 TinyGrasshopper
    June 18, 2013

    Von Neumann. I haven’t read MacRae’s book but I’ve heard it’s a bit lacking on some science-y parts.

  9. #9 damigiana
    June 19, 2013

    Emmy Noether. Because I’m fed up with people thinking a minor thinking like the theorem all physicists have heard of is all she did. Also, it’s good for boys and girls to remember that women can be scientists, even if they have to jump through many, many more hoops than men to achieve it.
    A good alternative: Lise Meitner. One can include details like her not being allowed to high school, having to pee in the restaurant in front of the physics institute because the latter had no women’s restrooms, and Hahn not even mentioning her name in the Nobel acceptance speech, even though she was present.

  10. #10 Jarmo Mäkelä
    June 20, 2013

    For Paul: Actually, there is a very good biography of Heisenberg, including a thorough discussion of his activities during the Nazi regime. It is written by D. C. Cassidy: “Uncertainty, the Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg” (Freeman, 1992)

  11. #11 curiousCharacter
    Decatur GA
    June 20, 2013

    I would vote for Maxwell. When I went looking for a biography, I was surprised that there was only the Basil Mahon biography mentioned by Tom Levenson. That book is only about 250 pages, and doesn’t describe his work in any depth.

  12. #12 Mary Kay
    June 20, 2013

    Do Bohr & Bethe have good bios?
    MKK– cause I can see me reading those. Esp. Bohr whom I fell in love with when I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

  13. #13 Peter Lund
    June 21, 2013

    Bohr has an extremely tedious and boring one by Abraham Pais. He also has an entertaining but rather pop-sci bio by Nørretranders (“Det Udelelige” – “The Unsplittable”, probably not translated from Danish). I have read both.

    Then there’s Helge Kragh’s more recent bio that only covers 1913-1925. It’s probably more readable than the former and more precise than the latter. I haven’t read it but I would like to. I have liked everything by Kragh so far.

    • #14 Mary Kay
      June 21, 2013

      Thanks Peter!

  14. #15 Avi Steiner
    June 27, 2013

    If you’re allowing mathematicians, there definitely needs to be one about Grigori Perelman, and there needs to be something about “Nicolas Bourbaki”.

  15. #16 Peter Lund
    June 27, 2013

    “Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians”.

    I read the paperback version a year or two ago and liked it. It is not particularly in depth on the math but that’s ok for a popular biography.

  16. #17 Alex
    June 29, 2013

    Meitner actually has a biography out, though the lack of attention means we probably need another one:


    Noether definitely deserves one. Besides the gender equity issue, the connection between symmetry and conservation laws is a deep principle that goes beyond any particular theory of nature, and provides a window into what theoretical physicists really care about. Educated laypeople should have some knowledge of that.

  17. #18 Jim
    July 1, 2013

    For mathematicians you might look at “Remarkable Mathematicians” by I. M. James. There was never anything “secret” about Bourbaki. It was a French joke, don’t take it that seriously.

  18. #19 Jim Hobelman
    July 2, 2013

    There’s also Weil’s autobiography.

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