Skip to main content

The Devil’s Doctor – Philip Ball ****

It’s very easy to dismiss those who laboured in areas we now recognize as science in medieval times. Some historians of science, with a brief nod to the developments in the Arab world prior to 1200, jump straight from the ancient Greeks to Galileo. But to do so reflects a fundamental misunderstanding, an incomprehension that results from looking back at medieval thinkers with a modern agenda. Strip away that bias, and surprising steps were taken.
When this reviewer suggested that the 13th century friar Roger Bacon could be regarded as the first scientist, it was argued in reviews that I was over-enthusiastic about the subject and had over-played Bacon’s significance. After all, he wasn’t a very good scientist. Theology was central to his worldview and he tended to overvalue the wisdom of the ancients, even though he argued against relying on received wisdom, and in favour of the importance of experiment. But surely the point is that the first scientist would not be a good scientist – like the dog walking on its hind legs, what’s amazing is not that he did it well, but that he did it at all.
In Philip Ball’s bulging book we are introduced to Paracelsus, the medical equivalent of Roger Bacon, if operating somewhat later. Like Bacon, Paracelsus become legend, gaining plenty of fictional notoriety. Like Bacon also, he operated in a world where theology was the starting point of science, and like Bacon it’s easy to dismiss his contribution because he was an early worker – he did get things wrong, but then it would be very strange if he didn’t.
There is one fundamental difference, though. In one sense, Bacon, born more that 270 years before Paracelsus (more properly Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim) was the more modern in his thought. Paracelsus thought that magic was a part of the natural world. Bacon despised magic, and made it clear that any “wonders” were the work of man’s hand or natural. Paracelsus was an outgoing, coarse, dramatic public performer – Bacon was an irascible Franciscan friar with little time for other people.
Philip Ball does a great job of putting us into Paracesus’ world. He gives lots of context and background, and makes it clear that, given where he started from, Paracelsus has been underrated. Yes, he believed many ridiculous things. Yes, he was more likely to kill a patient than help them. But his attitude, scorning the physicians who couldn’t be bothered to examine patients and believed it beneath them to touch a diseased person, and his approach showed that he was on the tipping point between magic and science. From Ball’s lucid text it becomes plain that it would be easy to see Paracelsus on either side of the magic/science divide. Of course life isn’t so neat – he was both.
The only criticism, one I’ve mentioned with Ball before, is that the book is unnecessarily long. If this is intended to be popular history of science, there was no need to drag it out to such length, and a little judicious editing could have made it much more approachable. Medieval science is never going to appeal to as many people as Newton or Einstein – but it is truly fascinating, a view into a very different world that gave birth to our own – and the more people who find out about it, the better, because it’s a part of history that has tended to be hidden. Full marks, then, to Ball for opening it up.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…