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.
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.