Skip to main content

The Rise of Science - Peter Shaver ***

This is a bit of weird one. The book combines history and philosophy of science with everything from an assessment of religion to futurology and it's hard to see how it all fits together.

We begin with the history bit. In an 84-page section, Peter Shaver takes us on a whirlwind tour of the entire history of science. It's too long to be compact, but too short to develop any interesting stories. We then go on to a rather laboured collection of requirements for knowledge elicitation (things like curiosity, imagination, determination and so forth), an exploration of the nature of science today and a brief consideration of the future.

Throughout, the presentation is very summary (except, perhaps for those requirements for knowledge, which seem to go on too long - but that may be because they themselves are too summary). We end up with a collection of facts - never getting into enough depth and lacking any sense of narrative flow. There is plenty of information here but it could almost be bullet points or PowerPoint slides. And while there are a few factoids that stand out (the length of the Great Wall of China and the fact that 90 per cent of the scientists who ever lived are alive today, for example), a fair amount of the material feels distinctly ‘tell me something I don’t know‘, like ‘the Internet and telecommunications revolution have dramatically changed our world.‘

Although history of science is important to the development of Shaver's book, the content can be mixed in its accuracy. We are told that Pythagoras was responsible for the Pythagorean theorem (we don't know who was, but it certainly wasn't Pythagoras), that Lippershey invented the telescope (he didn't), that Bruno was burned at the stake 'in part for being a proponent of the heliocentric model' (it wasn't the reason), that Newton was first raised by 'his parents' (his father died before he was born) and, remarkably, Shaver manages to describe the development of the laser without mentioning either of two main laser pioneers, Gould and Maiman.

Sitting particularly uncomfortably with the rest is a distinctly Janet and John set of descriptions of world religions (supposedly there to highlight the conflict between religion and science, though little is done to follow this thesis up). My favourite part was ‘Another schism with the Catholic Church was caused by England’s Henry VIII, who wanted a new wife; the result was the new Church of England.’ This could have come straight from the parody history book 1066 And All That.

I struggle to understand who this book is aimed at or what it's supposed to do for the reader. A far better exploration of how science came into being is David Wooton's The Invention of Science. There's no doubt that The Rise of Science does more than Wooton's book by trying to relate science to modern society, to put it into a wider context and to explore just what science is. But the way the book is put together does not help it in this purpose. Frustrating.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…