An Appreciation of Arnold Beckman

Arnold Beckman How scientific instrumentation has expanded human vistas is well illustrated by the contributions of Galileo (telescope) and Leeuwenhoek (microscope). The capability for further and deeper observation these men bequeathed to us with their instruments is at least as important as their own notable scientific achievements. It is not given to 20th century folk, in an explosively more complex world, to occupy so many roles simultaneously. But in historical retrospection, the electron

Joshua Lederberg
Mar 5, 2000


Arnold Beckman
How scientific instrumentation has expanded human vistas is well illustrated by the contributions of Galileo (telescope) and Leeuwenhoek (microscope). The capability for further and deeper observation these men bequeathed to us with their instruments is at least as important as their own notable scientific achievements.

It is not given to 20th century folk, in an explosively more complex world, to occupy so many roles simultaneously. But in historical retrospection, the electronic and electromechanical tools that Arnold Beckman has invented, developed, and brought to market will be seen as invigorating the life sciences in much the same way as the predecessor optical instruments did in previous centuries.

How extraordinary that Beckman and his company brought into everyday use such a wide range of new sophistication in a single lifetime: the electronic pH meter, the spectrophotometers, the ultracentrifuges, the amino acid analyzers and peptide synthesizers, and the list goes on.


Joshua Lederberg
Equally important, bred from the success of Beckman's enterprises has been the entrepreneurial lesson, copied by a host of emulators, that leaves few such opportunities neglected, so there can no longer be a near-monopoly of providers. Most of these inventions originated in scientific discovery and a modicum of technical invention, rooted in academic laboratories. But these instruments would remain laboratory curiosities if they could not be adapted to standards of industrial strength, in design, in manufacture, in troubleshooting, in customer training and support, in marketing and accompanying economies of scale, in the quest for and demonstration of new applications and improvements. We now have a beneficent industrial-academic complex that has enormously empowered what the individual scientist can do--and incidentally places greater burdens on the financial investment needed to be at the cutting edge of technical capability. This in turn has an impact on the structures of scientific research organizations; and it may sometimes have ambiguous and unintended consequences for the personality traits selected for, as some part of the price to be paid for the efficiency gained.

The news of science usually concerns what results a scientist has achieved, not how he has found them. The methods and instruments used and developed in the course of a scientist's research are rarely considered news. All too often, the role of instrumentation--from the tedious steps in design, to commercial production, to routine maintenance--is taken for granted in the conduct of scientific life. Yet scientific progress continues to depend on the invention and refinement of tools and techniques. It can be said that Arnold Beckman's career has changed the lives of scientists not only in providing powerful specific instruments, but in reshaping the technical context of their research strategies and life aims. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Human Genome Project.

As if this were not enough, Arnold Beckman has been blessed with uncommon long life, and a by-no-means- automatic accompaniment of wisdom and generosity of spirit and substance. Others will have more to say, from closer-hand observation, about his stewardship of the board of California Institute of Technology. In his decision to enjoy his personal fortune in a manner akin to John D. Rockefeller Sr., by giving most of it away to the worthiest causes of his own choosing, he has set an example that will inspire a new generation of technology tycoons, when they come to ask "What is all this about?" In Arnold Beckman's case, his affection for science and idealistic scientists shines through as his paramount value.

Joshua Lederberg is president emeritus and Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Scholar, Rockefeller University, and chairman of The Scientist's Editorial Advisory Board. This commentary is printed with permission from Chemical Heritage Press, Philadelphia, and is adapted from a passage in the upcoming book Arnold O. Beckman: One Hundred Years of Excellence, edited by Arnold Thackray and Minor Myers Jr., with a foreword by James D. Watson. The book is scheduled for publication next month. For more information, call 888-224-6006, ext. 222.