The Great Man paradox – A coda: biographies

This is a follow up to my last post that was inspired by an interesting discussion on Twitter and by the comment on that post by Paul Engle, author of the excellent Conciatore: The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri.

It is clear to me that biographies, particular popular ones, play a very central roll in the creation of the great men and lone genius myths. Now don’t misunderstand me I am not condemning #histSTM biographies in general; I have one and a half metres of such biographies on my bookshelves and have consumed many, many more that I don’t own. What I am criticising is the way that many such biographies are written and presented and I am going to make some suggestions, with examples, how, in my opinion such biographies should be written in order to avoid falling into the great man and lone genius traps.

The problem as I see it is produced by short, single volume, popular biographies of #histSTM figures or the even shorter portraits printed in newspapers and magazines. Here the title figure is presented with as much emphasis as possible on the uniqueness, epoch defining, and world-moving importance of their contribution to the history of science, technology or medicine. Given the brevity and desired readability of such works the context in which the subject worked is reduced to a minimum and any imperfections in their efforts are often conveniently left out. In order to achieve maximum return on their investment publishers then hype the book in their advertising, in the choice of title and/or subtitle and in the cover blurbs. A good fairly recent example of this was the subtitle of David Loves Kepler biography, How One Man Revolutionised Astronomy, about which I wrote a scathing blog post.

The authors of such works, rarely themselves historian of science, also tend to ignore the painfully won knowledge of historians and prefer to repeat ad nauseam the well worn myths handed down by the generations – Newton and the apple, Galileo and the Tower of Pisa and so on and so forth.

#histSTM biography does not have to be like this. Individual biographies can be historically accurate, can include the necessary context, and can illuminate the failings and errors of their subjects. Good examples of this are Westfall’s Newton biography Never at Rest and Abraham Pais’ Einstein biography Subtle is the Lord. Unfortunately these are doorstep size, scholarly works that tend to scare off the non-professional reader. Are there popular #histSTM works that surmount this problem? I think there are and I think the solution lies in the multi-biography and the theme-orientated books with biographies.

A good example of the first is Laura J Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. Despite the hype in the subtitle this book embeds its four principal biographies in a deep sea of context and because all four of them were polymaths, manages to give a very wide picture of Victorian science in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Another good example is Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who made the Future, once again a terrible subtitle, but with its even larger cast of central characters and even wider spectrum of science and technology delivered by them we get a true panorama of science and technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neither book has any lone geniuses and far too many scrambling for attention for any of them to fit the great man schema.

Two good examples of the second type are both by the same author, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and Twitter sparring partner, Matthew the Mancunian Maggot Man, aka Matthew Cobb. Both his books, The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth

and Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

deal with the evolution of scientific concepts over a relatively long time span. Both books contain accurate portraits of the scientists involved complete with all of their failings but the emphasis is on the development of the science not on the developers. Here, once again, with both books having a ‘cast of millions’ there is no place for lone geniuses or great men.

These, in my opinion, are the types of books that we should be recommending, quoting and even buying for friends and relatives not the single volume, one central figure biographies. If more such books formed the basis of peoples knowledge of #histSTM then the myths of the lone genius and the great man might actually begin to fade out and with luck over time disappear but sadly I don’t think it is going to happen any day soon.

Having mentioned it at the beginning I should say something about Paul Engle’s Conciatore.

This is a single volume, one central figure biography of the seventeenth-century glassmaker Antonio Neri, who was the first man to write and publish a book revealing the secrets of glassmaking. His revealing of the trade secrets of a craft marks a major turning point in the history of technology. Up till the seventeenth century trade secrets were just that, secret with severe punishment for those who dared to reveal them, including death. Later in the century Joseph Moxon would follow Neri’s example publishing a whole series of books revealing the secrets of a whole range of trades including the first ever textbook on book printing his Mechanical Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works. Paul’s book is a biography of Neri but because of why he is writing about Neri it is more a history of glassmaking and so sits amongst my history of technology books and not with my collection of #histSTM biographies. Here the context takes precedence over the individual, another example of how to write a productive biography and a highly recommended one at that.






Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Myths of Science

5 responses to “The Great Man paradox – A coda: biographies

  1. I hate WordPress. I have just spent five minutes composing the perfect response to this post, only to have WordPress come back ‘Could not post this comment’ and losing everything.

  2. Thank you for the excellent additions to my already extensive list of books to read.

    A work I’d like to recommend: Möbius and his Band: Mathematics and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Germany. This book boasts not only several bios, but also a bunch of authors, including Allen Chapman, Jeremy Gray, and Ian Stewart. The punning title aside, the band was only one of Möbius’s many important contributions. (And actually, Listing discovered the band before Möbius.)

    The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson covers similar ground to Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret; I’ve read the first but not the second. I wonder if anyone familiar with both could compare them? The Eighth Day of Creation is an older work, but very well written.

  3. Thanks for the very kind words — more than I deserve for sure 😉 I also wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of your addendum. I guess the ultimate challenge for writers of history is to convince readers – and hopefully publishers) that the subject material stands on its own without the need for hype or sensationalist window dressing.

  4. David K Love

    Apologies, but I can’t resist once again rising to the bait of your further reference to the subtitle that my publishers chose for my book “Kepler & the Universe: How one man revolutionized astronomy”. Several points:

    1. Notwithstanding the subtitle, the book does in fact mention (either in passing or with fairly lengthy passages) several of Kepler’s immediate predecessors, contemporaries, and immediate successors who were engaged in what we would now call the scientific endeavour, as follows: Copernicus, Rheticus, Reinhold, Thomas Digges, William Gilbert, Giordano Bruno(!), Tycho, Maestlin, Galileo, Ursus (!), Johannes Jessenius, Herwart von Hohenberg, David Fabricius, Thomas Harriot, Willebrord Snellius, Descartes, Halley, Hans Lipperhey, Magini, Huygens, Cassini, Johannes Fabricius, Christopher Scheiner, Francis Bacon, John Napier, Gassendi, Leibniz, Riccioli, and Newton. The final chapter provides a brief history of astronomy since Kepler’s day, and mentions numerous further names.

    2. The book can’t be too awful, because it received favourable reviews from – amongst others – two Kepler experts, William H Donahue (on the back cover of the book) and Owen Gingerich (in Physics Today, October 2016). The foreword was written by a professor of astronomy, Richard S Ellis.

    3. I think I simply have a different objective from you. You wish to downplay the idea of “great men”. I, on the other hand, am horrified at the level of scientific ignorance in modern society, and in writing the book wanted to do what I could to educate the general public about matters scientific. I felt (and still feel) that one perfectly valid way of doing this was to focus on the work of one man (whilst saying a fair amount about others in the process). If you make a history of science book too detailed and complicated, with too many threads, you simply lose the general reader.

    4. As Brian Clegg pointed out in the original series of posts, no publisher wanting to make money in a highly competitive market would choose a subtitle something like “how one man was part of a list of people involved in revolutionising astronomy in the seventeenth century in a collective, collaborative enterprise”, even if this is a more accurate description.

    5. Notwithstanding your comments, I still think there is something to be said for applying the “great man” title to Kepler. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is that it was Kepler who uniquely moved astronomy from the field of geometry to physics. In his own words, he achieved “the unexpected transfer of the whole of astronomy from artificial circles to natural causes.” The second is the sheer effort he clearly put in over a period of years to discover (again uniquely) that the planets moved in ellipses, not in combinations of circles, and that they did so in accordance with his second law. (The book makes clear that he couldn’t have done this without the work of Tycho Brahe, and without the patronage of Rudolph II.) The result was that he was able to predict future planetary positions far more accurately than anyone before him. The third is that he wrote on a wide range of other topics, principally optics. He had his erroneously eccentric and mystical side (also covered in the book), but this was more than compensated for by his achievements.

    That’s all.

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