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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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