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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…