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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…