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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.
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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.

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