I found this book to be a bit of a slow-starter. Smithson is pretty well absent for the first 50 pages, as the author goes into quite a bit of detail concerning the mating habits and inheritance rights of the British aristocracy. The information on inheritance is relevant, as it ties into the tale of Smithson's bequest. The amorous adventures, though certainly fun to read about, don't seem essential to the story. But have no fear - eventually Ms. Burleigh settles down to business and we learn about James Smithson, assorted oddball scientists, John Quincy Adams, 19th century Washington D.C., etc. We also learn the unsurprising fact that they had some sleazy politicians back then (Smithson's gift of $500,000, equal today, perhaps, to $50 million, "disappeared" and was only replaced by the Treasury after John Quincy Adams screamed bloody-murder), and we also learn the depressing fact that Congressmen were just as provincial, and as ignorant concerning scientific matters, 160 years ago as they are today. The mind boggles that many politicians didn't want to take the money for fear the establishment of the Smithsonian would increase the power of the Federal government. Some Anglophobes, still smarting from two wars with the British, didn't want to taint American tastebuds with the financial crumbs (admittedly, a healthy portion of crumbs) tossed our way by an Englishman. Just as interesting was the fact that even those who were glad to get the money didn't know what to do with it. After all, Smithson wanted the money to be used to "increase and diffuse Knowledge among men." How do you go about doing that....exactly? It was not inevitable that the Smithsonian would become highly involved with research and expeditions...some people just wanted it to be a library, and some people just wanted it to be a museum. John Quincy Adams, despite being dour and a bit of a "downer," personality-wise, comes across in these pages as a hero. When Washington was still full of muddy roads, mosquitoes, and politicians who liked to spit, swear, booze it up, and even bring their hunting dogs to the floor of the House, Adams pushed for high culture and learning. Alexander Graham Bell also comes through with high marks: in 1903, when Smithson's body was in danger of falling into the Mediterranean (the British cemetery in Genoa was gradually falling into the sea due to blasting from a nearby marble quarry), Bell made the trip to Italy, hacked his way through Italian bureaucracy, and brought Smithson's remains to America. The section dealing with Smithson as scientist is also fascinating. Although not a great or original thinker, Smithson amassed quite a collection of minerals and did the laborious work of subjecting all of his accumulated material to painstaking chemical analysis. He was a member of the Royal Society and knew some interesting, if odd, fellow scientists. Ms. Burleigh relishes telling us about the aristocrat-scientist Henry Cavendish, who "was shy and bashful to a degree bordering on disease" (according to a contemporary), who hated women, and who, although fabulously wealthy, always attended Royal Society dinners with just enough money to pay for his dinner - and not a shilling more. We also meet the extremely eccentric geologist William Buckland, who "claimed to have eaten his way through the whole of the animal kingdom, declaring at first that moles were nastiest." Ms. Burleigh also enjoys telling us that at one time Royal Society members vowed to eat only fish and pudding at their meetings. The reason? They were trying to help out Edmond Halley (of comet fame) - who had no teeth. This book is a well-balanced mixture of the light and the enlightening, and of science, politics and personalities. If you have any interest in either the Royal Society or in the history of the Smithsonian, I am sure you will enjoy a stroll through the pages of this book.