Skip to main content

The Light Ages - Seb Falk ****

In this chunky title, Seb Falk sets out to prove very effectively that, certainly from the scientific viewpoint, the suggestion that medieval Europe spent a period of time in the 'dark ages' is misrepresentation. Historians, of course, dumped the 'dark ages' title some time ago, but it still lingers on in our imaginations.

The backbone of Falk's book is the life and work of a fourteenth century English monk by the name of John Westwyk, who spent most of his adult life at St Alban's Abbey. Westwyk enters the story with a 1951 discovery of a manuscript on an astrolabe-like device, found in Cambridge: a manuscript that was first attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. (If this seems bizarre, bear in mind that as well as Canterbury Tales and his other titles, Chaucer was the author of a beginners guide to using that versatile medieval astronomical tool, the astrolabe.)

It turns out that Westwyk was the author of the manuscript, as well as a number of other astronomical contributions, but Falk uses his story as a stepping off point to a whole range of different topics, bringing in all the well-known names of the period from Roger Bacon to the Oxford Calculators. There's loads of fascinating detail on astrolabes, but also on everything from calculating techniques to medicine, and crusading (Westwyk took part in an ill-fated venture against the 'other side' when the Catholic Church briefly split under two opposing popes) to clocks and timekeeping - the latter tied into both astronomy and St Albans, where the abbot, Richard of Wallingford, was responsible for a remarkable early astronomical clock.

Falk obviously knows and loves his subject, often delving into scrupulous and richly imagined detail. This attention to detail is, perversely, the only flaw in the book - it makes it a wonderful reference source, but takes away from the readability of a book that promised so much. (It's not often you get a history of science title with a prologue that manages to mention Lord Mountbatten, Chaucer and Steve Bannon.) I found myself getting rather bogged down in the detail on a number of occasions and skip-reading forward until it got interesting again.

That said, there is so much to like here. I wouldn't recommend it as a primer on the medieval European science of this period - there is just too much detail - but if it's a period you already know a little and want to immerse yourself in, it's brilliant.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Math Without Numbers - Milo Beckman *****

In some ways, this is the best book about pure mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.  At first sight, Milo Beckman's assertion that 'the only numbers in this book are the page numbers' seems like one of those testing limits some authors place on themselves, such as Roberto Trotter's interesting attempt to explain cosmology using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language, The Edge of the Sky . But in practice, Beckman's conceit is truly liberating. Dropping numbers enables him to present maths (I can't help but wince a bit at the 'math' in the title) in a far more comprehensible way. Counting and geometry may have been the historical origin of mathematics, but it has moved on. The book is divided into three primary sections - topology, analysis and algebra, plus a rather earnest dialogue on foundations of mathematics exploring the implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and a closing section on modelling (

Linda Schweizer - Four Way Interview

Linda Schweizer earned an MA in mathematics and a PhD in astronomy at UC Berkeley, with the visual arts and dance as her other passions. She observed southern-hemisphere galaxy pairs with several telescopes in cold dark domes in Chile, then modelled, analyzed, and published her work in 1987. Those papers on the statistical and dynamical modelling of dark matter in binary galaxy halos were, she says, just a small stone in the mosaic of our growing understanding of dark matter. A Carnegie Fellowship in Washington, DC, was her first science job. By then, she had her second daughter in the oven— with two more daughters to follow, and she turned her focus to properly preparing them for life. After 15 years, she returned to the world of astrophysics. After a brief stint in External Affairs, she taught science writing to undergraduate students at Caltech and loved it. She was a Visiting Scholar at Caltech while researching Cosmic Odyssey , an insider’s history of one of the greatest eras in a

The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is. What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social m