Booknotes and Science/Technology
Though it was originally conceptualized as a program about history and the political process, in its fifteen year run, “Booknotes” covered books on many diverse issues. Brian Lamb and his production team always sought out new topics to explore. Several of the works featured on the show dealt with science and the role of inventors in society. “Booknotes” attention to these books help to show the stories behind modern inventions which people take for granted.
Author Neil Baldwin appeared on “Booknotes” March 19, 1995 to discuss his book Edison: Inventing the Century. This book was the first biography of Thomas Edison, an inventor of the light bulb, motion pictures, and the phonograph. Baldwin’s discussion of his book about this influential man on “Booknotes” helped to give America insight into the inventor who epitomized the American dream and whose inventions made so much of modern life possible.
Like electricity, rubber is an invention that is ubiquitous in society. However, unlike Edison and electricity, rubber’s inventors and the power struggle for who would take control of that industry is not a well-known story. That is the topic of author Charles Slack’s work Noble Obsessions: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century. Through his October 27, 2002 appearance on “Booknotes” Slack and Lamb were able to bring this important but forgotten story of a significant modern invention to light.
The story behind many significant scientific advancements and the individuals behind them are often clouded in mystery. This was also the case for penicillin and antibiotics, the most important family of drugs of the twentieth century. This is the topic of Eric Lax’s The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle, that tracks how brilliant science, missed opportunities, and personalities led to the drug’s discovery by British scientists and how American labs secured their patents. On May 2, 2004 Lamb discussed this enlightening story on “Booknotes.”
Works on science and technology often grapple with complex ideas and inventions. That was the case for Dana Sobel’s book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time that chronicles 18th Century clockmaker John Harrison’s creation of the first clock accurate enough to determine longitude at sea. Despite the complexity of these works Lamb’s close readings of the books meant that he was prepared to ask questions about even the most intricate details. In her June 2014 oral history interview Sobel indicated that this preparedness made her feel “caught” on a few odd questions which were about small details within the work.
“Booknotes” books about science and technology sometimes overlapped with other subject matters, especially espionage and intelligence. That was the case for Jeffrey Richelson’s The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. In his February 2015 oral history interview, Richelson said that Lamb and other interviewers were very interested in the intentions used by the CIA during the Cold War. The “acoustic kitty” program, which involved bugging a feline to eavesdrop, was a popular topic.