Skip to main content

The Scientific revolution: a very short introduction – Lawrence M. Principe ****

It’s easy for a very short guide to a subject to become a collection of information without narrative or style. Luckily Lawrence Principe’s entry in the OUP pocket guide series is the very reverse. It is elegantly written and fascinating to read.
Along the way you may well have your illusions about the history of science shattered. Nothing much happened in science between the Greeks and the renaissance? Wrong. They thought the Earth was flat in Columbus’s day? Wrong. Galileo’s trial was all about science versus the church? Wrong. What comes across most strongly – and it’s why I’ve always found medieval science absolutely fascinating – is that you have to see the world with a different mindset. It’s not that they were all illogical and stupid back then, merely that they started from different first principles and built logically but incorrectly on these.
This little book gives an excellent feeling for where our scientific ideas came from, how the approach to science was shaped by the universities and religion of the day, and how we need to have much less of a knee-jerk reaction to the way they got things wrong with astrology and natural magic and other similar silly sounding topics.
I’ve read a lot of these very short introductions to review them both here and elsewhere, and I’d say this is definitely one of my favourites. Not only is there is a surprising amount of thought provoking and very readable content, it is an absolute essential to understand where our modern approach to science has come from. Read it now.

Paperback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…