AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XL , No. 1, Spring 2008
Manhattan Project
Major General Leslie R. Groves CG of the Manhattan Project, War Department, confers with Mr. David E. Lilienthal, new Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC at Oak Ridge, TN, principal facility of the Manhattan Project on October 1, 1946. Credit: Digital Photo Archives, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segrč Visual Archives.

New Dictionary of Scientific Biography: An Expanded Reference Source
by John Ridgen

The 16-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), edited by Charles Gillespie, was published over the period 1970 to 1980. Two supplementary volumes were added in 1990. In these eight volumes, world scientists, from the natural philosopher Thales to those 20th-century scientists whose lives extended into the 1980s, are featured. The DSB is an indispensable resource for scholars, journalists, writers, and students who need authoritative information about illustrious scientists from the past. This collection of biographies has been rightfully, and accurately, called a monumental achievement.

In early 2008, the New DSB (NDSB), edited by Noretta Koertge, was published. This 8-volume set builds upon and expands the original DSB. Users of the DSB will find the appearance of the NDSB familiar as its format is the same. The principal purpose of the NDSB was to make available biographies of scientists whose lives ended since the late 1980s: scientists such as Richard Feynman (d. 1988), John Bell (d. 1990), Linus Pauling (d. 1994), Abdus Salam (d. 1996), Francis Crick (d. 2004), and Hans Bethe (d. 2006).

There are 800 new entries in the NDSB and that identifies a daunting challenge: how are 800 candidates selected out of the large number of worthy candidates? All candidates were nominated by the Subject Editors who worked under strict boundary conditions. Many selections, like those above, were obvious; some candidates were debated back and forth; arguments were mounted weighing one candidate against another; sometimes a candidate could only be added if another was eliminated and a little horse trading was done. If critics take issue with the end product, it will not be because of those scientists present, but for those absent.

Scholars have been active since the DSB was published. The NDSB builds on its predecessor by taking advantage of this schol-arship. For example, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein started to appear in the late 1980s and the Einstein entry in the NDSB is strongly influenced by this resource. Pauli’s role in the development of quantum mechanics is better understood now than it was 20 years ago, and an expansion of his biography, along with a much expanded bibliography, appears in the NDSB.

Since the appearance of DSB, young sciences such as computer science, space science, ecology, have matured. The NDSB includes scientists from these still-young disciplines.

The DSB and the NDSB are incredibly valuable—and interesting—resources not only for scholars, but for students and those representatives from the general public who are interested in how things came to be. I urge science faculty to call their students’ attention to the DSB and the NDSB. Contemporary science textbooks are largely silent about those names that appear in their pages and silent about how basic concepts came into the mainstream of science. These reference sources will fill a textbook void. The appeal to students (and scholars) will be enhanced when the fully searchable Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography comes online.

Return to Newsletter Table of ContentsRETURN to Spring 2008 Newsletter Table of Contents

AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics Copyright © 2008
American Institute of Physics,
One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Contact Us
Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843