By Veronika Meduna and Rebecca Priestly
Random House, $34.99 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

Atoms, Dinosaurs & DNA is a frustrating book, even if it achieves its purpose: to inform the reader about prominent New Zealand scientists from the last two centuries. Each scientist is afforded a double page, a brief biography, and discussion of their major work/influence, with a few nice illustrations.

It’s an easy read aimed at a wide audience, from children through to adults. There’s not a great deal of techspeak, and the authors offer a glossary just in case some terms trip the reader up. Naturally some of the scientists are of (inter)national renown, although there were quite a number new to me. But it frustrated me because the brief biographies left me wanting to know more about most of the scientists mentioned and their work.

With the scientists ordered chronologically by birth date, the brief nature of the biographies, especially early on, start to read more like obituaries than anything else. Trying to encapsulate someone’s life and work in half a dozen paragraphs is never an easy task, and when the work has been extensive and/or highly specialised we are left, it feels to me, not knowing a great deal.

There are however interesting nuggets throughout, such as the fact that the scholarship which got Ernest Rutherford to Cambridge (and subsequent fame) was first offered to chemist James Maclaurin who turned it down for personal reasons. (Just how different might our world have been?!).

It also offers a kind of de facto history of science. We go from Walter Buller, bird exterminator, to Don Merton, bird saviour, sheep breeders to molecular biologists. I find it quite amazing that almost every field of science has been influenced in some way by the people in this book, and many have changed the way we view the world, the universe.

Apparently Atoms is a children’s book, though it I imagine its appeal will be wider than that. The great value in it, for me, lies in the ‘Further Information’ section at the back which lists all those books I’ve been meaning to get around to reading sometime, along with a bunch of other useful resources. This is really a pick-and-mix read: good for browsing random entries when the mood takes, or for doing some quick research for a school project.

The last year or so has seen a growing audience for works by and about New Zealand science and scientists – the Kim Hill/Paul Callaghan radio conversations and book, Christine Cole Catley’s superb Beatrice Tinsley biography, the recent Allan Wilson documentary, and the soon to be released Awa Book of NZ Science. It’s great to see something targeted to the younger reader. For us older readers, this volume acts as a great introduction to some of our greatest (scientific) minds, and is a great place from which to start looking further and deeper. A younger audience will hopefully discover that we can do great things in science given the opportunity.