Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Science: antiquity and its legacy - Philippa Lang ***

There is a lot of nonsense talked about Ancient Greek 'science', so it was genuinely interesting to get a clearer picture of who came up with in the capable hands of ex-classics professor Philippa Lang. Although written in an academic style, the book is approachable and fills in a lot of detail I've not come across elsewhere on the contradictory contributions of different Greek philosophers, organised by topics that vary from the origins of the universe to their decidedly fuzzy ideas about women. (Despite the received wisdom that some of the Greek philosophers were married, you get the impression they'd seen women from a distance, but certainly never got as far as a date.)

 Rather less successful is the 'legacy' part of the book - the attempt to lay the ideas about nature from antiquity alongside modern ones in order to compare and contrast. There are two problems here. One is the tendency (despite regularly emphasising the very different approaches then and now) that pointing out similarities that are nothing more than inevitable coincidence will imply more significance than is deserved, fodder for the 'wonders of ancient wisdom' brigade.

 The other, and worse, problem is that the modern science presented here is sometimes a little adrift from modern scientific content. So, for instance, we have the Big Bang placed 15 billion years ago, the many worlds hypothesis confused with the multiverse concept, and a rather hazy conception of dark matter and dark energy in one chapter alone. A co-author might have been recommended to make the comparisons less ineffective.

 At its worst, the science part is downright confusing, even occasionally when talking about the ancients, e.g. In saying 'As a matter of fact, heavier objects do usually fall faster than lighter ones in atmosphere, because a heavier object is usually a larger object, which means that there is a larger area to be affected by air resistance.' This just doesn't make sense, as being larger will tend to slow down an object rather than speed it up (try dropping a sheet of paper opened flat at the same time as a piece scrunched in a ball).

 Luckily for the reader, though, the tendency to bring in details of modern science fades out after the first couple of chapters (unless you count the likes of Darwin as modern), and the text settles down to a more accurate portrayal. I'm not sure this is a book for every popular science fan, but for anyone looking to get a better grounding of why 'science' in antiquity was both more and less than we tend to think of it, Science: antiquity and its legacy is recommended reading.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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