Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…