A New Encyclopedia

The Harper Encyclopedia of Science

edited by James R. Newman
Harper & Row, 4 vols., 1379 pp., $29.95

We cannot claim that ours is either the right century or the right nation for producing a good general encylopedia. Our talent seems to run more to specialized handbooks. Thus professional sociologists have long had their enviable Encylopedia of the Social Sciences, put together under a board of directors that included such notables as Franz Boas and John Dewey, and so useful over the years that many are now worried whether the projected revision can meet the same standards. Similarly, the scientists produced a few years ago the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, the first adequate work of its kind in the English language.

But few indeed are those who expect to get this set as a Christmas gift: Its fifteen volumes cost $175, and they are of course meant primarily for the reader who has had considerable technical training. Moreover, the McGraw-Hill encyclopedia managed to squeeze the genie of science into a mere 10,000 pages only by keeping out all biographical or historical material as well as medicine, methodology, and the sociology of science. What the general reader needs, however, is an encyclopedia that somehow not only includes all these aspects of the sciences and their relations, but that also speaks to him patiently in fundamental detail.

Add to this the desirabality of making such an encyclopedia manageable in size and cost and one sees the full difficulty of turning this trick at all—a difficulty matched only by the pressing need for an up-to-date reference source in which scientists write without jargon for the intelligent non-scientist. If such a layman is at all alive to the new ideas and achievements in science and technology during the last decade or two, he must feel keenly his inability to understand and enjoy some of this excitement. To be shut off from even an elementary insight into today’s scientific advances—such as the translation of the genetic code, the discoveries of fundamental symmetries among the elementary particles, or the current mapping of our galactic systems (as most people are who lack the terminology and background)—must surely be as painful to any thinking person as it would have been to be ignorant of Greek in Athens at the time of Sophocles, to be blind in Florence during the Renaissance, or to be deaf in Vienna at the time of Mozart.

To create a layman’s encyclopedia of science, Harper asked James R. Newman to assume general editorship. His special interest is mathematics, a field in which he has edited and written several books, including the widely used The World of Mathematics and the scholarly Goedel’s Proof (with Ernest Nagel). A lawyer by training, he was the counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Atomic Energy in the immediate post-war years. Since 1948, he has been a member of the Board of Editors of Scientific American, where he is in charge of book reviews; month after month he writes and assembles an impressive number of perceptive evaluations …

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