Joshua Lederberg is president emeritus of Rockefeller University. In a 2000 commentary for The Scientist magazine, he compared Arnold O. Beckman’s importance to the progress of science with that of Galileo (who invented the telescope) and Leeuwenhoek (who invented the microscope).
That might seem a bit extravagant, but “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.,” Lederberg wrote.
Beckman died last week at the astounding but somehow appropriate and gratifying age of 104. His accomplishments would have been remarkable if he had died 40 years earlier, but his uncommonly long life allowed him to establish a legacy that will encourage scientific progress for decades and perhaps centuries to come.
As Michael Berns, co-founder of the Beckman Laser Institute at UC Irvine, said, instrumentation doesn’t always get much respect in the scientific or academic community. Yet designing and manufacturing instruments requires intelligence, inventiveness and imagination. Increasingly sophisticated instruments make possible increasingly sophisticated and precise experiments and tests. And instruments themselves can become a catalyst for discovery as researchers exploit possibilities others had not considered.
Or, as Lederberg put it, “scientific progress continues to depend on the invention and refinement of tools and techniques.” If this is true it is almost impossible to measure the true contribution of Arnold Beckman — though he would no doubt have been intrigued by the problem.
The contributions he did make, once he combined his scientific curiosity with his entrepreneurial capacity to build a successful business that was the forerunner of the high-tech industry, were impressive enough. Through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation he donated an estimated $400 million to institutions like Caltech (where he earned his Ph.D.), University of Illinois, Stanford, UC Irvine, UC San Francisco, Cal State Fullerton, Rockefeller University, Chapman University, the Scripps Clinic and the City of Hope.
His philanthropic activities, as Berns of UCI noted, focused on institutions and people with an opportunity to make revolutionary discoveries in science and technology. Thus people will benefit from his imagination and generosity for years to come.
He was also active in the Republican Party, being one of a handful of business leaders who convinced Ronald Reagan to run for governor in California. His belief in market-oriented, voluntary approaches to social problems was thoroughgoing and persistent. All this and he had a sense of humor and he didn’t take himself too seriously.
Many of those trumpeted as heroes or role models, especially in sports, entertainment and politics, turn out to be shallow or have feet of clay. Arnold Beckman was a person of substance and solid integrity, fully worthy of emulation.
As Berns put it: “He enlightened us all — intellectually, spiritually and photonically.”