Monday, 20 April 2009

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

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