Tuesday, December 07, 1999

Biographies

Professor Takeshi Onodera of Nihon University quotes the following passage in the column "Words to Remember" of Asahi Weekly [1].
No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.
--Thomas Carlyle, "Heroes and Hero-Worship"
Onodera recollects that his father often had bought him the biography of a great person in his childhood, and writes that in post-war Japan the concept of "great persons" has become unpopular. This trend is based on the thought that distinction is incompatible with the principle of equality. Thus the people of the post-war generation might have been obliged to succeed under the pretence of disliking success and must have felt guilty about the result. Onodera considers such situation as desolate and laments it, commenting that without longing and an ideal one would be apt to lose interest in living.

When I was a high school junior, one of my teachers asked me about my hobby. I said, "I like to read denki." Denki is the Japanese word for biographies. The teacher said, "Do you mean 'books on denki'?" The word denki also means electricity. "No, I don't. I read 'ijin no denki' (biographical books of great persons)." I have kept this hobby of reading biographies until now, though the field of great persons I am interested in has been narrowed down to science (mainly physics).

Since the years of rising yen in the 1980s, I have collected many biographies of great physicists written in English. My collection well covers the lists of the top ten physicists in history chosen by PhysicsWeb and Physics World surveys (see the previous section) except James Clerk Maxwell. What now I want is an enough time to enjoy those biographies.

In the middle of writing this essay, I received the 6-Dec-1999 issue of "Movable Type," a free e-mail announcement from Britannica.com, which included the following notification of the biographical-book page at Britannica.com's website:
From historical overviews to psychological profiles, biographies are perennial favorites among book lovers. Celebrate the lives of poets, artists, and politicians this week in Books.
Let us celebrate the lives of physicists too to gain much interest in living (a list of my collection of biographies of physicists will appear later in this website). However, be aware also of the following dangerous nature of a biography:
Whoever undertakes to write a biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to flummery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, since biographical material is not to be had, and if it were it could not be used. Truth is not accessible; mankind does not deserve it.
--Sigmund Freud, in a letter to a friend
[Quoted in the aforementioned issue of "Movable Type"
from: George Seldes, ed., "The Great Thoughts"]
  1. Asahi Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 46 (Nov. 21, 1999).

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