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Portraits of Great American Scientists

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How does a person become a scientist? What special talents, aptitudes, and qualities of character are needed? Why is science important and how should it be used by society? There is no better way to learn about scientists and the whole scientific enterprise than by talking to scientists themselves.

These fifteen biographies, written by promising young students from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, reveal the many interesting human factors that influenced the lives of successful scientists: how they chose their individual career paths, what obstacles they had to overcome along the way, and where they think science will lead society in the future. They also convey the excitement of discovery that both these established scientists and their young biographers share as they explore their particular scientific interests.

The various biographies cover a wide range of fascinating personalities and their disciplines: Clifford Geertz (cultural anthropology), Mary Claire-King (genetics), Marvin Minsky (artificial intelligence), Story Musgrave and Sally Ride (astronautics), Steven Pinker (psychology/cognitive science), F. Sherwood Rowland (chemistry), Vera Rubin (astronomy), Paul Sereno (paleontology), George Smoot (astrophysics), Charles Townes and Edward Witten (physics), Geerat Vermeij (geology), E. O. Wilson (sociobiology), and Dawn Wright (oceanography).

This inspiring project, all directed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman, is especially welcome at a time when there is widespread concern about the declining level of scientific literacy among Americans. Truly fascinating in content and presentation, these inspiring biographies show that science is a many-faceted and thrilling voyage of discovery.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Creative…. Readers of this book cannot help but get caught up in the students’ voyages of discovery…. A powerful introduction to the challenges and the joys of doing science.”

            -American Reference Books Annual 2003

“The introduction by Lederman should be required reading for all high school science teachers and students…[a] rare offering that talks to kids about something besides their problems…. [It] delightfully demonstrates that not all scientists are nerdy white men wearing thick eyeglasses.”

            -San Jose Mercury News

“This book comes along at a time of growing science illiteracy among Americans. If you know a young, potential scientist, this book would make a with its insightful and inspiring stories.”


“A well-written, very interesting, book.”

            -Science Books & Films

Children's Literature
The new century holds great promise for advances in science, medicine and the preservation of the environment. However, this progress is dependent upon the hard work of large numbers of scientists. In a culture where sports figures and rock stars are the idols of so many, who will nurture these up and coming scientists? This volume is one in a series of biographies of contemporary American scientists whose lives are chronicled by students at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. This school was founded to encourage promising high school students in the areas of math and science. Fifteen scientists were interviewed and researched by the students. They have done a good job selecting a wide range of disciplines and ages and both genders. Although most of the scientists excelled in math and knew at an early age they wanted to be a scientist, it definitely was not true for all. Dr. Story Musgrave had a very turbulent youth, with both of his parents committing suicide. Books were not a part of his growing up, but he was inspired to get an education. He eventually received nine advanced degrees. He is best known for his mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a source of information about not only the lives of each of the scientists, but a look at the science behind their work. 2001, Prometheus Books, $28.00. Ages 10 up. Reviewer: Kristin Harris AGES: 10 11 12 13 14 15
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573929325
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2001
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Leon M. LedermanNobel Laureate (Batavia, IL) is the author of Beyond the God ParticleQuantum Physics for Poets, and Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe (coauthored with Christopher T. Hill), as well as The God Particle (with Dick Teresi). He has served as the editor of Portraits of Great American Scientists and a contributor to Science Literacy for the Twenty-First Century. He is formerly the Resident Scholar at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and Pritzker Professor of Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and he is director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Judith A. Scheppler, Ph.D. (Chicago, IL), is the Coordinator of Student Inquiry and Director of the Grainger Center for Imagination and Inquiry at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. She is also the coauthor of Biotechnology Explorations: Applying the Fundamentals.

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Table of Contents

Preface 7
Introduction 11
1 Clifford Geertz: Anthropological Ambassador 25
2 Mary-Claire King: Pioneering Geneticist 41
3 Marvin Minsky: Mind Maker 61
4 Story Musgrave: Space Doctor 79
5 Steven Pinker: Language's Bad Boy 99
6 Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space 115
7 F. Sherwood Rowland: Controversial Chemist 133
8 Vera Rubin: Intergalactic Prospector 151
9 Paul Sereno: Dinosaur Detective 169
10 George Smoot: Indiana Jones of Science 185
11 Charles Townes: Laser Legend 205
12 Geerat Vermeij: Seeing with His Hands 225
13 E. O. Wilson: Diligent Naturalist 237
14 Edward Witten: The Theory of Everything 253
15 Dawn Wright: Mapping the Abyss 275
Epilogue 291
Notes 297
Bibliography 303
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