Skip to main content

The Invention of Science - David Wootton *****

This is no lightweight book - both literally and metaphorically. It packs in nearly 600 pages of decidedly small print, and manages to assign about 10 per cent of these simply to deciding what is meant by a 'scientific revolution' (the subtitle is 'a new history of the scientific revolution'). While warning of the importance of being aware of the change in meaning of some terms, the author successfully demolishes the arguments of those who argue that terms like science, scientist and revolution can't be applied to the seventeenth century because they're anachronistic. (He doesn't say it, but this is a bit like saying you shouldn't call a dinosaur a dinosaur because the word wasn't in use when they were around.)
What's also very apparent in a section on history and philosophy of science is why so many scientists are dubious of philosophers and historians of science. When an adult can seriously suggest that we can't say that current science is better than that of the Romans - all we can say, suggest these philosophers and historians of science, is that our science is different - it makes it very clear that some academics have spent far too much time in ivory towers examining their philosophical navels and really haven't got a clue about the real world.
We then get into the main content of the gradual process of science, in the current sense of the word, coming into being. It's certainly interesting in a dry way to see this analytically dissected, though the slightly tedious nature of the exposition makes it clear why popular science has to simplify and concentrate on the narrative if readers are to be kept on track. I appreciate that an academic like David Wootton wants to ensure that every i is dotted and t crossed, but I think that all the arguments of this book could have been made in half the length by cutting back on some of the detail and repetition.
This book, then, is not popular science in the usual sense, but neither is it a textbook. If you are prepared to put the effort in, you will receive huge insights into what lies beneath: one view of the true history of science. That's why the book gets 5 stars. I've learned more about the history of science from this one book than any other five I can think of that I have read in the past. I have to emphasise that 'one view' part, though. History is - well, not an exact science. As far as I can see (I'm not equipped to criticise the content) this is a superbly well researched piece of scientific history, but in the end, the conclusions drawn are down to Wootton and he enjoys making it clear where he is strongly contradicting other historians of science.
There's a huge amount to appreciate here. Wootton convincingly demolishes Kuhn's idea that scientific revolutions require heavy disagreements among scientists, showing how exposure to experience (often thanks to new technology, such as the telescope) can swing the argument surprisingly painlessly. And he shows what a remarkable influence words have on the development of science (music to the ear of a writer). Perhaps most remarkable of all is Wootton's careful, very detailed exposition of the idea that the real trigger for 'modern' scientific thought was Columbus's discovery of America, which demolished the existing model of the Earth and made it possible to see how experience can triumph over the philosophical quagmire of authority.
If you've a fair amount of time to spare and really want to dig into the way that the scientific revolution came about, I would heartily recommend giving this title a try.

Shortlisted for the $75K Cundill Prize 2016
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…