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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.

Review by Brian Clegg


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