... a quirky, oddly touching book that allows us to step, for a few moments, inside the world of a practicing Enlightenment scientist, to sit beside him as he fans the flames of a candle with his little blowpipe, waiting for that small mineral in front of him to melt and yield its secrets ... Equipped with an extraordinary talent for presenting complex scientific facts lucidly, Mr. Turner revives more than a dozen of Smithson’s experiments ... even Mr. Turner’s meticulous reconstructions cannot dispel the sense that, whatever he tackled, James Smithson inevitably missed greatness by a matter of inches.
Turner weaves biographical facts about Smithson through well-researched discussions of the subjects of his published papers, which range from detailed chemical analyses of various substances to ice crystals to making an inexpensive, but accurate, scale ... Seamlessly intertwined with information about scientific and social developments in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including facts about important names in geology, chemistry, and mineralogy, this welcome guide will engage readers of science biographies and the history of science.
While Turner’s experiment-by-experiment, article-by-article analysis can be tedious and principally of interest to historians of the sciences of Smithson’s era, the author makes a convincing case that his wide-ranging studies should be considered significant scientific achievements for their time ... Solid insight into the work of a man whose gift undergirds one of the most important U.S. institutions of learning.