Skip to main content

God’s Philosophers – James Hannam ****

If you read many histories of European science, you would think that the Greeks did some interesting thinking about natural phenomena (even if they mostly got it wrong), then there was a 1500-or-so-year gap, and then in the Renaissance, the scientific baton was picked up again. The medieval period is considered an intellectual desert. Worse, one where opinions on nature were actively suppressed by the religious authorities.
James Hannam sets out to fill in clearer picture of what really happened in science (or, more accurately, natural philosophy) in this period. He takes us through some fascinating stories of characters you might not expect to find in a history of science – Abelard of the Abelard and Heloise love story, for instance – and puts paid to many myths about the way the church suppressed the study of nature, or that medieval thinkers had limited ideas of reality, such as the assumption that the Earth was flat (an idea never held by the educated since the time of the Ancient Greeks).
I was interested to see how Hannam would deal with Roger Bacon, having written a book on Bacon – inevitably he is decidedly summary, but gets most of the main points across. Bacon comes across in Hannam’s picture as a man who was taken with magic, which seems odd at first when Bacon wrote specifically denying the existence of magic – but this is due rather different ideas between the two of them on what magic was considered to be. Hannam misses a lot of the drama of Bacon’s story – slightly strange when he includes plenty on some of the other characters – and quite a lot of his achievements, but still does as well as you could expect in a book that has a lot of ground to cover, and this bodes well for the effectiveness of the rest of the content.
I don’t have any problem with the considerable portion of the book applied to religious ideas of the period, because it’s impossible to separate science and theology in the period – if you are going to look into the scientific ideas of this period there is no way to avoid it. Nor was I worried about the way much of it felt as much history as history of science, as it filled some real gaps in my knowledge. What I have slightly more trouble with is Hannam’s sometimes rather smug attitude to others who haven’t got his insight, or who dirty their hands writing popular science. At one point, for instance, he says of Galileo’s book on Copernican theory: ‘The modern genre it most resembles is popular science of the sort that tries to convince lay readers that they can understand relativity or string theory while glossing over the difficult points.’ This comment is at best insulting to the writers and condescending to the readers of popular science.
But if you are prepared to overlook the occasional fault, this is a very useful book for filling in the gaps that most of us have in our awareness of the development of scientific thinking, and as such it’s an essential for the student of the history of science.
Paperback:  
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…