Skip to main content

Scientifica Historica - Brian Clegg ****

I like Scientifica Historica very much. I studied History and Philosophy of science as an undergraduate many years ago and have maintained an interest in it, so this is an area I’m familiar with in an amateur sort of way – and am pleased (and slightly smug) at the number of books discussed by Brian Clegg that I have actually read.

The first thing to say is that the book is beautiful. The illustrations are lavish and inspiring much of the time – especially for me, seeing original scripts from millennia ago and handwritten notes by some deeply revered scientists but also pages and covers from great books. This makes it more of an introduction and a coffee table book than an in-depth work on the historiography of science, but that’s just fine because it fits that role very well. All the great works of pre- and 20th-Century science you’d expect are here, from Aristotle and Hippocrates through the great Arab works of the 9th to the 12th centuries, then Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Galileo, Harvey, Malthus, Dalton, Faraday, Darwin, Einstein… plus a lot more, all of which is a delight to see. Each is discussed readably and with enough depth to inform the casual reader and to encourage those interested to seek out more.

Things become quite interesting with 20th-Century selections as science broadens out and I think it’s here that people may find some editorial choices controversial, especially in the final section on popular science books. Clegg doesn’t give us any Freud or Jung, for example, but does include Oliver Sacks and two (two!) of Desmond Morris’s books. To me Sacks is unarguable, as are many others he chooses, but two Desmond Morris books but nothing whatsoever by Peter Medawar or Stephen Jay Gould? My judgement would have been different – but then, that’s always going to be the case in such a selection.

So, as an enticing introduction to some of the great (and in my view some not so great!) books of science, this works very well and I can recommend it.

Reproduced with permission from the Sid Nuncius blog.
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.


Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …