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Life is Simple - Johnjoe McFadden ***

This is a really hard book to review, because it has two quite distinct parts and the chances are that if you are interested in one of these parts, you may well find the other part less engaging. The first section concerns the development of Occam's razor - the idea of keeping your explanation of something as simple as possible while it still works - and the impact this would have on philosophy (and proto-science) in the Middle Ages. The second part treads very familiar ground in taking us through some of the major developments in science from Galileo onwards, occasionally tying back to Occam's razor to show that the impact of the idea continued.

As it happens, I love the first bit as I find the medieval development of science and its intertwining with religion and philosophy fascinating. Jonjoe McFadden brought in a lot of material I wasn't familiar with. Of course I was aware of Occam's razor itself, but I knew nothing about William of Occam as a person, or the way his idea radically changed the philosophy of the period. (If I'm picky, as someone who has written a book on Roger Bacon, I think McFadden plays a little fast and loose in this bit of history - he describes Bacon's Opus Majus pretty much as a treatise on optics, where it's strictly a book proposal not a treatise, and only 164 pages out of its 840 in my edition are on optics.)

I find the angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin-ishness of the period a delight and would give it five stars, but I think many popular science readers will find it less inspiring than I do. By comparison, I found the second half, post Boyle and his transitional position on the cusp of modern science, told me nothing really new in a summary way that wasn't very engaging.

I think in many ways it would have been better if McFadden had limited himself to the first half and filled it out more - the rest we can pretty much take for granted, and it has been covered vast numbers of times elsewhere. Life is Simple is definitely of interest if the early rumblings of philosophy towards science, and the impact of Occam's razor on philosophy and theology grab your attention, but otherwise less so. 

Incidentally, the book's title gives you no clue as to what it's about, making it necessary to rely on the subtitle, never a good move. At first glance, I thought it was a biology book on the origins of life.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. Or, as Einstein put it "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

    ReplyDelete

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