Tag Archives: chemistry

Book Review: The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by Lawrence Principe

This was another of the books I received for my birthday. It is also a continuation of my addiction to Oxford University Press’ series of Very Short Introductions.

As can be supposed from the title, this is the telling of the story of how modern science emerged. The story of that emergence, however, must be told from something that might loosely be called a beginning. As such, much of the text is devoted to matters that we might no longer regard as being part of the scientific mainstream.

However, in telling the history of science, Principe gives the reader due warning against anachronistic thinking. In this respect, the book makes for a pleasantly refreshing change from some modern sneering of the ideas prior to the scientific revolution. An example of this might be found in how Principe looks at the origins of humanism in the first chapter, noting that its origins are complicated and shaped rather differently from its current dominant form.

Having sketched out the medieval origins of the scientific revolution (for more on this, I recommend God’s Philosophers by James Hannam), one might think Principe would simply move on, but this isn’t really possible. To understand this one period of history, Principe constantly points us to its origins. If there’s one lesson hammered home here it’s that the scientific revolution didn’t emerge out of some sort of act parthenogenesis.

An example of this is his look at how the ideas of Aristotle influenced science, not least in how things are connected, the subject of chapter 2. There’s a great little treatise on magia naturalis here which is well worth a read, as it contains a good warning about dismissing past views that are now discarded as being superstitious.

Having laid these foundations, Principe goes on to look at two major topics: the superlunar world and the sublunar world. This mostly covers what we would now know as physics and chemistry, though given the phase in history which is being looked at, chemistry wasn’t really developed yet, so Principe uses the term chymistry instead. Without recapitulating it here, these are fantastic chapters which are evident of Principe’s rigour and faithfulness to the history of the period.

Having looked at what we would recognise as these two areas, the next, naturally was biology, and indeed that is the subject of the following chapter. We get a whistle-stop tour of anatomy and microbiology, though in his brevity, there is no great loss suffered. Indeed, I could hardly praise Principe’s writing enough, as he maintains the reader’s interest from start to finish.

This could never be a comprehensive review of the period and all the developments that occurred within it. But insofar as giving the reader an excellent grounding, this is a work I would thoroughly recommend. There are, of course, references and lists of further reading on each subject. But if you have any interest whatsoever in the history of science, please do read it.

Book Review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

I freely confess that as the years count up since I left university, my favour for working through the details of science has somewhat diminished. This has been replaced by a far greater interest in the history of science and the lives of those who have been instrumental to the progress of our collective understanding of how the world and the cosmos functions. When The Age of Wonder was released a few years ago to many rave reviews, it was not long before it found its way onto my reading list. However, it was not until Christmas 2012 that I received it as a gift. Indeed, this is the last of the books I received for Christmas which I have read. As is my habit, for a particularly long book such as this (it runs for 490 pages plus appendices) I read it rather slowly. In fact, I think I started reading this towards the end of March.

So what’s it all about? In short, it’s a history of science from the late 18th century up to the mid 19th century. But it is so much more than that. Holmes has pieced together a brilliant narrative, held together with some fascinating links. The main link is the person of Joseph Banks, whose story dominates the first chapter, but who keeps cropping up at the start of the subsequent chapters, as Holmes recounts the stories of Mungo Park, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday. There are many other characters that Holmes deals with, including those who pioneered manned balloon flights, though I think he has expanded that chapter into a whole new book subsequent to his writing The Age of Wonder.

Subtitled ‘How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science’ the book does have a distinct feel to it, for including a good discussion on the link between the arts and the sciences. This is most keenly felt in his chapter entitled ‘Dr Frankenstein and the Soul’ where the talk is a real mix of science and the lives of the romantic poets. He finishes with an epilogue in which he advocates the removal of any supposed barriers between science and other fields such as religion, art and ethics – a stance I wholeheartedly agree with.

The narrative style that Holmes chooses is executed with aplomb. I have to say the book was a pleasure to read, perfectly paced and with something interesting on just about every page. For most of the book I just wanted to keep reading, hoping it wouldn’t end; and for a long time it didn’t. It was only when we got the deaths of William Herschel and Joseph Banks that it seemed right that the book draw to a close, which it did shortly afterwards. As a piece of writing, the quality was superb. The Age of Wonder has jumped into my all-time list of best science books, and possibly the best of any books.

So who would I recommend this to? Well, just about anyone; it’s excellent. An utter joy to behold and one I may well return to. I certainly won’t be donating it to a charity shop. So you’ll have to go out and get your own copy.