For first time author Mike Green there are very few individuals in the world who can really say that they made a lasting contribution to our civilization. However, what about those who have made all kinds of sacrifices, but discover that fate had dealt them an unlucky hand? As Green asserts in his introduction, “how would you feel if you had tried to do something exceptional, but you still got ranked along with the rest of us worthless layabouts? It would be pretty annoying don’t you think?”
Unfortunately, history is filled with many examples wherein people do go the extra mile and yet are forgotten and short-changed, each deprived of their place in the hall of honour in the world of science and technology. As a result, these individuals belong to an unrewarding exclusive club- its membership is not one we would necessarily aspire to belong. In Green’s terms these are the ‘Nearly Men’ and the story of some of these individuals comprise his debut book, The Nearly Men: A Chronicle Of Scientific Failure.
Green has chosen to focus on the following eight: Antonio Meucci, the nineteenth-century Italian mechanical engineer; the English mathematician and code breaker, Alan Turing; the French botanist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; the Victorian naturalist and social reformer, Aldred Russel Wallace; the English geometry professor and surveyor, Robert Hooke; the Serbian electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla; the American electronic engineer and Nobel Laureate, Jack Kilby and the Victorian chemist and photography expert, Sir. Joseph Swan. Some you may be familiar with while the majority are probably a mystery, however, even the ones you may know a little about, you probably are unaware of the full extent of their involvement in the advancement of mankind.
As Green points out, the element that binds all of these individuals is that “they each managed to miss out on one of the most important inventions or greater scientific discoveries since civilization began, and all the subsequent admiration that came along with it.” The fellows all came very close and even in some cases they were robbed. Moreover, unfortunately “they all died in states of complete poverty, neglect, or even ignominy, overlooked by a society that did not respect or understand their particular brand of genius.” On the other hand, the people they lost to were such household names as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi. And within three hundred and ten pages, Green presents a series of accounts that are packed with betrayal, trickery, and sheer misfortune, spanning over three hundred years.
Green has meticulously analyzed the lives of these poor forgotten souls and explores the reasons why fame and fortune eluded them. As we discover, it may not have only been a matter of rotten luck but rather language barriers, lack of time and resources, fatal flaws in their personalities, too trusting, poor business acumen, or, as so often is the case, no one would listen to their ideas. In order to fully understand the events and circumstances that shaped the lives of these individuals, Green examines them in the context of the people who did in fact succeed in reaching their goals or as he states, the person that beat them to it.
The Nearly Men: A Chronicle Of Scientific Failure does an outstanding job in describing the nuts and bolts of the ideas and visions of these ‘Nearly Men’ and it challenges the reader to ponder whether in fact they merit recognition.
Green’s presentation is deft and masterful, as turns what might easily have become a dense series of tedious and dull yarns filled with a great deal of historical and scientific facts, appealing only to a few hardcore historians and scientists, into a valuable and even at times witty journey into every branch of the scientific world from biology to physics, from telecommunications to electronics, from mathematics to computer technology.