Skip to main content

Science: a four thousand year history – Patricia Fara *****

This is the rare case of a weighty tome (literally – at over a kilo, my wrists were like jelly by the end) that’s also a page turner. Patricia Fara has managed the near-impossible: a history of all of science. It has been tried before. John Gribbin, for instance, made an attempt with Science: A History – but his book limited itself to Galileo onwards, was 600+ pages long and frankly not all that readable as popular science. Fara’s, despite the weight, slips in at a more manageable 384 pages, covers the whole span of science and was a delight to read.
I have elsewhere been a little heavy on academic authors, which Fara is. All too often, their books read like a transcript of a lecture – and a dull one at that. They never use three syllables when they can get away with four. The writing here isn’t like that. It’s modern, easy to digest and superbly informative. But that’s not to say that the book is simplistic in its approach to science. It’s not just a catalogue of scientific breakthroughs. Not only does Fara do away mostly with Kuhn-style revolutions and individual scientific heroes, she ensures that the science is placed in its essential political and social context. It’s easy to pretend that science is something separate from society – Fara makes it clear that this isn’t the case, and never has been.
It’s hard to pick out any specific examples that stand out, because this is such a magnificent, well-woven sweep through history. From the Babylonian origins of the early precursors to science to the latest genetic research, it’s all there. Yet there’s not a feeling of hasty summary. Fara lingers long enough on key people to get a true popular science feeling of engagement. And she includes the institutions like the Royal Society that have had an impact as much as individuals.
Inevitably there are going to be some small issues. Anything trying to be everything to everyone will stumble occasionally. Being a little biased on the subject of Roger Bacon, I think Fara underplays his significance. Perhaps because the structure of the book leaves ‘experiment’ as a concept until later in the chronology, she makes no mention, for instance, of the way Bacon devotes a whole section of his Opus Majus to the significance of experiment. There’s also the occasional factual oddity. For example, she comments that when Marconi sent a radio message across the Atlantic ‘for the first time, the two sides of the Atlantic were in virtually instantaneous contact,’ which really isn’t true. The difference in speed between radio and the transatlantic cable was relatively slight. She also perpetuates the myth that the term ‘bug’ in computing came from insects shorting out circuits, when the term had been in use in engineering for many years before.
Most seriously, her personal politics are more apparent than is, perhaps, desirable in a book like this. But these are all minor concerns in what is a brilliant undertaking. I hope that the publisher rushes out an affordable mass market paperback version of this book, as it deserves the widest audience possible.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…