Category Archives: Book Reviews

Books!

When I dropped out of academia (for the second time in my life) in the early 1990s, because of serious (mental) health problems, I throttled back my life-long interest in the history of science, giving my energy instead to recovering my mental equilibrium. When, after a break of several years, I returned to an intensive engagement with the history of science, one of the first things I did was to take part in a seminar at the university on Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. This led me to the question, why was De revolutionibus published in Nürnberg? Regular readers will know that I live just down the road from Nürnberg, so this a fairly natural question for me to ask. My attempts to find an answer led to an in depth study of the life and work of Johannes Petreius, the printer publisher who published De revolutionibus and to the early history of the printed book, as Petreius stood in a direct line of descent from Gutenberg through his Basler relatives who had learnt the black art directly from its inventor.

The more general question of the influence of the printed book on the evolution of modern science led quite naturally to a deepened interest in the early history of scientific book publication in which Nürnberg again played a role through Regiomontanus the first printer publisher of scientific books.

Curiously Nürnberg was also the site of the first paper mill north of the Alps, paper being an essentially ingredient in mass production of printed books and this fact led to a strong interest in the history of paper making and to the materials that preceded paper as a medium for transmitting the written word.

Another seminar that I took part in at the university, following my return to the history of science, concerned the history of illustrations in scientific texts, which awakened my interest in the various methods of illustration reproduction and their histories. Another Nürnberger, Albrecht Dürer, played a significant role in that history.

Over the years I acquired a deep interest, and a modicum of knowledge of the histories of all the various aspects of recording knowledge in word and picture, so it was not surprising that my interest was drawn almost magnetically to a fairly recent new publication with the title, The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Times. An interest made even stronger by the fact that the author of this tome is Keith Houston, the author of both the book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a serious candidate for ultimate geek bedtime reading, and of the blog of the same name. Unable to resist temptation I acquired a copy of The Book.

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Having delved deeply into the subject over a number of years I expected to be entertained, Houston is a witty writer, but not really to learn much that was new. I was mistaken, even though I consider myself well informed on the topic I took away much that was new from Houston’s excellent study of the topic.

The Book is divided into four sections, The Page, The Text, Illustrations and Form. The first deals with the history of writing material from papyrus over parchment to paper and the progress from hand-made paper to modern industrial paper production. The second deals with methods of bringing writing onto that material starting with Babylonian cuneiform symbols impressed into clay tablets, outlining the history of ink and moving on to the history of moveable type printing. Once again covering the arc from the cradle of civilisation to the twentieth century. Part three does the same for pictures on the page. The final part deals with the forms that books have taken over the centuries from the papyrus roles to the codex and the various sizes and forms that the codex has adopted down the years. We also get a detailed history of the evolution of bookbinding.

Houston has researched his topic exceedingly well and delivers his cornucopia of information in a well-digested and easily accessible form for the reader, with a healthy portion of humour. One aspect of the book that appealed to me as a history of science myth buster is Houston’s use of multiple layers of historical story telling. For example, he takes a topic and tells his readers how its history was understood and presented in the nineteenth century. Then he explains how modern research showed this to be wrong and represents the history from this standpoint. Having gone into great detail he then explodes this version by showing why it can’t be true. I’m not going to go here into any great detail, as it would spoil the fun for future readers, and it really is fun, but Houston gives his readers a useful lesson in the evolution of the historiography of his subject.

One thing that has to be said is that The Book is beautifully produced with much obvious loving care for detail. It is printed with a very attractive typeface on lovely paper both of which make it a real pleasure to hold and to read. It comes bound in heavy light-grey carton boards joined together by dark read spinal binding tape. Its gatherings are, as befits a book about the history of the book, stitched and not glued. Throughout the book, starting with the cover, all of the bits and pieces that a book consists of are bracketed and labelled with their corrected technical terms. The book is beautifully illustrated, each illustration possessing an extensive explanatory text of its own. There are a helpful further reading list, extensive endnotes (as always I would have preferred footnotes) and an equally extensive index. Despite being just over 400 pages long, and being a high quality, beautifully produced, bound book it retails at a ridiculously low price. The publishers offer it at $29.95 but it can be had for less than twenty pounds, euro or dollar depending on your location.

If you have any interest in the history of the book as an object or the history of moveable type printing then I can only recommend acquiring a copy of Keith Houston’s wonderful book on the book.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing

He fought for his mother

There are not many books about the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler in which he only plays a supporting role but this is the case in Ulinka Rublack’s The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother[1]. In fact in Rublack’s excellent book even Kepler’s mother, Katherina, the nominal subject of the book only really takes a supporting role; the lead role being taken by the context within which the whole tragic story unfolds and it is exactly this that makes this book so excellent.

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I champion the claims of Johannes Kepler to being the most significant natural philosopher of the Early Modern Period against the rival claims of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton et al. So I am naturally interested in any new books that appear with Kepler as their subject. Having looked closely at one of the strangest events in Kepler’s unbelievably bizarre life, the arrest and trial of his mother, Katherina, on a charge of witchcraft – and having blogged about it twice – my interest was particularly piqued by an announcement of a new book on this topic. A decent, well-researched book in English devoted exclusively to the subject would be a very positive addition to the Kepler literature. Rublack’s book is just the bill.

Nearly all accounts of Katherina Kepler’s ordeal are merely chapters or sections in more general books about Kepler’s life and work and mostly deal chronologically with the original accusations of witchcraft, counter accusations, the attempted violent intimidation of Katherina, the frustrated strivings to bring charges against her tormentors, her arrest and finally the trial with its famous defence by Johannes. Except for thumbnail sketches of those involved very little attempt is ever made to place the occurrences into a wider or more general context and this is, as already said above, exactly the strength of Rublack’s book.

Rublack in having devoted an entire book to the whole affair draws back from the accusations, charges, counter charges and the trial itself to flesh out the story with the social, cultural, political and economic circumstances in which the whole sorry story took place. In doing so Rublack has created minor masterpiece of social history. Her research has obviously been deep and thorough and she displays a fine eye for detail, whilst maintaining a stirring narrative style that pulls the reader along at a steady pace.

One point in particular intrigued me having read all the prepublication advertising for the book, including several illuminating interviews on the subject with the author, as well as short essays by her. Rublack takes what might be seen as a strong feminist stand against the previous, exclusively male, characterisations of Katherina Kepler, all of which painted her as a mean spirited, crabby, old hag, who was, so to speak, largely to blame for the situation in which she found herself. Having over the years read almost all of these accounts I was curious how Rublack would justify her rejection of these portrayals of Katherina, which I knew were based on Kepler’s own accounts of his mother. Rublack does not disappoint. She points out quite correctly that Kepler’s description of his mother was written when he was still very young and is part of an almost psychopathic put down of himself and all those related or connected to him and calls rather his own mental state into question. Interestingly we have virtually no other accounts of Katherina from Johannes’ pen and to judge her purely on this one piece of strange juvenilia is probably, as Rublack makes very clear, a bridge too far. Piecing together all of the, admittedly scant, evidence Rublack paints a much more sympathetic picture of Katherina, a hard working, illiterate, sixteenth/seventeenth-century peasant woman, who had never had it easy in life but still managed to raise her children well and give them chances that she never had.

This book is not perfect, as Rublack relies in her accounts of Johannes on older standard biographies, whilst apparently not consulting some of the more recent scholarly studies of his life and work, and thus repeats several false claims concerning him. However I’m prepared to cut her some slack on this as none of the errors that she (unknowingly?) repeats have any direct bearing on the story of Katherina that she tells so skilfully.

The book is beautifully presented by the OUP. Printed in a pleasant, easy on the eyes typeface and charmingly illustrated with a large number of black and white pictures. The text is excellently annotated, but as always I would have preferred footnotes to endnotes, and there is an adequate index. I personally would have liked a separate bibliography but this might have been sacrificed on cost grounds, the hardback being available at a very civilised price for a serious academic volume. Although having called it that I should point out that the book is very accessible and readable for the non-expert or general reader.

I heartily recommend this book to anybody interested in seventeenth-century history, Johannes Kepler, the history of witchcraft or who just likes reading good informative, entertaining books, if one is allowed to call a book about the sufferings of an innocent woman entertaining. Put simply, it’s an excellent read that deserves to, and probably will, become the standard English text on the subject.

[1] Ulinka Rublack, The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother. OUP, 2015

 

 

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

History (of Science) Books by Women

Last weekend saw several major newspapers publishing their books of the year list. Unfortunately these displayed, in several aspects, a serious lack of balance. Science and history of science books came up more than somewhat short and in some categories the male dominance was glaring. The latter problem provoked the following tweet by historian and history book author Lucy Worsley:

8 of 9 of the ‘history books of the year’ in today’s Times, and 19 out of 21 of ditto in today’s Telegraph, are by men. I’m not impressed. Lucy Worsley

In reaction to this tweet a hash tag sprang into life, #HistoryBooksbyWomen, under which some just listed the names of female history book authors and others tweeted names and book titles. My discipline the history of science is blessed with many excellent female historians, authors of many first class books. This being the case I thought that I might cruise along my bookshelves and present here a lightly annotated list of some of those books by women that have enriched and informed my career as a historian of science.

I start with my #histsci soul sisterTM, Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt, whose volume in the way the nineteenth century saw Isaac Newton, Recreating Isaac, I reviewed here.

Becky is also co-author of the beautiful Finding Longitude, which I reviewed here. (Her co-author Richard Dunn is a man but we won’t hold it against him).

Staying with Newton we have Sarah Dry telling us what happened to his manuscripts in The Newton Papers and Lesley Murdin Under Newton’s Shadow: Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century.

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In the world of navigation, cartography and geodesy we have Christine Garwood Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Joyce E. Chaplin Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Silvia Sumira Globes: 400 Years of Exploration Navigation and Power and Rachel Hewitt Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

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Representing the Middle Ages we have two biographies Nancy Marie Brown The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages and Louise Cochrane Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist. For fans of automata there is E. R. Truitt’s delightful Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.

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In the early modern period and the emergence of modern science we have Pamela O. Long Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Science, Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan, Paula Findlen Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Deborah E. Harkness The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Eileen Reeves Galileo’s Glassworks, Lisa Jardine Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, her Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, her On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, and her The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Ulinka Rublack The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother, Sachiko Kusukawa Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany and Susan Dackerman ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early Modern Period Featuring essays by Susan Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katherine Park, Susanne Karr Schmidt and Claudia Swann.

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Turning to the eighteenth century we have Patricia Fara A Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future.

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No Renaissance Mathematicus book list would be complete without some esoteric history. We start with Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan that I reviewed here, Louise Hill Cuth English almanacs, astrology & popular medicine: 1550–1700, Tamsyn Barton Ancient Astrology, Pamela H. Smith The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Frances A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as well as Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Somewhere between the stools Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature.

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Mathematics are represented by Kim Plofker Mathematics in India and Serafina Cuomo Ancient mathematics. Astronomy and cosmology by M. R. Wright Cosmology in Antiquity, Kitty Ferguson Measuring the Universe and Jessica Ratcliff The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain.

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We close with a potpourri of titles that don’t quite fit into any of the categories above. We start with two excellent books by Laura J. Snyder, her four-way biography of nineteenth-century Cambridge polymaths The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World and her double seventeenth-century art and science biography Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. Two further biographies are Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Dorothy Stein Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Patricia Fara gives us a general survey of science history in Science A Four Thousand Year History and a look at the role some women played in that history in Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment. Deborah Jaffé also looks at the role of women in science and technology in Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. Last but by no means least we have Ingrid D. Rowland’s translation of Vitruvius: Ten Books of Architecture.

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This list is of course fairly random and somewhat arbitrary and is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. All of the books that I have included are in my opinion good and quite a lot of them are excellent. They demonstrate that there is width, depth and variety in the writings produced by women in the history of science taken in its widest sense. Should any misogynistic male of the species turn up in the comments and claim that the above list is only so impressive, and I find it very impressive, because I, in some way, privilege or favour female historians then I must point out that I have many more history of science books by male authors than by female ones on my bookshelves.

If you wish to add your own favourite history of science books authored by women in the comments you are more than welcome.

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

History of Science for Kids

I recently got an email from Chad Lillian with the following request:

I was wondering if you could recommend some books for me about mathematical and scientific history that would be interesting for my 10 year old son to read (or for me to read with him)?  I have looked through your book reviews, but am wondering if there are any books you haven’t reviewed on your blog, but would recommend?

Now I don’t have and never have had children and I also don’t teach children so I am basically the wrong person to answer this question. Can people recommend suitable, preferably myth free, books on the histories of mathematics and science for Chad? make your suggestions in the comments!

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Science contra Copernicus

One of the most persistent and pernicious myths in the history of astronomy is that Galileo, with his telescopic observations, proved the validity of the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis and thus all opposition to it from that point on was purely based on ignorance and blind religious prejudice. Strangely, this version of the story is particularly popular amongst gnu atheists. I say strangely because these are just the people who pride themselves on only believing the facts and basing all their judgements on the evidence. Even Galileo knew that the evidence produced by his telescopic observations only disproved some aspects of Aristotelian cosmology and full scale Ptolemaic astronomy but other Tychonic and semi-Tychonic geocentric models still fit the available facts. A well as this the evidence was still a long way from proving the existence of a heliocentric model and many physical aspects spoke strongly against a moving earth. Put another way, the scientific debate on geocentrism versus heliocentrism was still wide open with geocentrism still in the most favourable position.

Apart from the inconclusiveness of the telescopic observations and the problems of the physics of a moving earth there were other astronomical arguments against heliocentricity at the time that remain largely unknown today. Christopher M. Graney[1] has done the history of astronomy community a big service in uncovering those arguments and presenting them in his new book Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo[2].

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We’ll start with the general summary, as I’ve already stated in an earlier post this is an excellent five star plus book and if you have any interest in this critical period of transition in the history of astronomy then it is quite simply an obligatory text that you must read. So if you follow my advice, what are you getting for your money?

In 1651 the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli published his Almagestum Novum or New Almagest , which contains a list of 126 arguments concerning the motion of the earth, i.e. the heliocentric hypothesis, 49 for and 77 against and it is this list that provides the intellectual scaffolding for Graney’s book. Interestingly in discussion on seventeenth-century astronomy Riccioli’s book, and its list, has largely been dismissed or ignored in the past. The prevailing attitudes in the past seem to have been either it’s a book by a Jesuit so it must be religious and thus uninteresting or, as was taught to me, it’s a historical account of pre-Galilean astronomy and thus uninteresting. In fact before Graney and his wife undertook the work this list had never even been translated into English. As to the first objections only a few of Riccioli’s arguments are based on religion and as Graney points out Riccioli does not consider them to be very important compared with the scientific arguments. As to the second argument Riccioli’s account is anything but historical but reflects the real debate over heliocentrism that was taking place in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The strongest scientific argument contra Copernicus, which occupies pride of place in Graney’s book, is the so-called star size argument, which in fact predates both Galileo and the telescope and was first posited by Tycho Brahe. Based on his determination of the visible diameter of a star, Tycho calculated that for the stars to be far enough away so as to display no visible parallax, as required by a Copernican model with a moving earth, then they must be in reality unimaginably gigantic. A single star would have the same diameter as Saturn’s orbit around the sun. These dimensions for the stars didn’t just appear to Tycho to be completely irrational and so unacceptable. In a Tychonic cosmos, however, with its much smaller dimensions the stars would have a much more rational size. Should anyone think that this argument was not taken seriously, much later in the seventeenth century Christiaan Huygens considered the star size problem to be Tycho’s principle argument against Copernicus.

Many, more modern, historians dismissed the star size problem through the mistaken belief that the telescope had solved the problem by showing that stars are mere points of light and Tycho’s determined star diameters were merely an illusion caused by atmospheric refractions. In fact the opposite was true, early telescopes as used by Galileo and Simon Marius, amongst others, showed the stars to have solid disc shaped bodies like the planets and thus confirming Tycho’s calculations. Marius used this fact to argue scientifically for a Tychonic cosmos whilst Galileo tried to dodge the issue. We now know that what those early telescopic astronomers saw was not the bodies of stars but Airy discs an optical artefact caused by diffraction and the narrow aperture of the telescope and so the whole star size argument is in fact bogus. However it was first Edmond Halley at the beginning of the eighteenth century who surmised that these observed discs were in fact not real.

Graney details the whole history of the star size argument from Tycho down to Huygens revealing some interesting aspect along the way. For example the early Copernicans answered Tycho’s objections not with scientific arguments but with religious ones, along the lines of that’s the way God planned it!

Although the star size argument was the strongest scientific argument contra Copernicus it was by no means the only one and Graney gives detailed coverage of the whole range offering arguments and counter arguments, as presented by the participants in the seventeenth-century debate. Of interest particular here is Riccioli’s anticipation of the so-called Coriolis effect, which he failed to detect experimental thus rejecting a moving earth. Far from being a decided issue since 1610 when Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius heliocentricity remained a scientifically disputed hypothesis for most of the seventeenth century.

Graney’s book is excellently written and clear and easy to understand even for the non-physicists and astronomers. He explains clearly and simply the, sometimes complex, physical and mathematical arguments and it is clear from his writing style that he must be a very good college teacher. The book is well illustrated, has an extensive bibliography and a useful index.

As a bonus the book contains two appendixes. The first is a translation (together with the original Latin text) and technical discussion of Francesco Ingoli’s 1616 Essay to Galileo, a never published but highly important document in the on going discussion on heliocentricity; Ingoli a Catholic cleric argued in favour of the Tychonic system. The second appendix is a translation (together with the original Latin text) and technical discussion of Riccioli’s Reports Regarding His Experiments with Falling Bodies. These experiments are of historical interest as they demonstrate Riccioli’s abilities, as a physicist, as he delivered the first empirical confirmation of Galileo’s laws of fall.

Graney’s book is a first class addition to the literature on the history of astronomy in the seventeenth century and an absolute must read for anyone claiming serious interest in the topic. If you don’t believe me read what Peter Barker, Dennis Danielson and Owen Gingerich, all first class historians of Early Modern astronomy, have to say on the back cover of the book.

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[1] Disclosure; Chris Graney is not only a colleague, but he and his wife, Christina, are also personal friends of mine. Beyond that, Chris has written, at my request, several guest blogs here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, all of which were based on his research for the book. Even more relevant I was, purely by accident I hasten to add, one of those responsible for sending Chris off on the historical trail that led to him writing this book; a fact that is acknowledged on page xiv of the introduction. All of this, of course, disqualifies me as an impartial reviewer of this book but I’m going to review it anyway. Anybody who knows me, knows that I don’t pull punches and when the subject is history of science I don’t do favours for friends. If I thought Chris’ book was not up to par I might refrain from reviewing it and explain to him privately why. If I thought the book was truly bad I would warn him privately and still write a negative review to keep people from wasting their time with it. However, thankfully, none of this is the case, so I could with a clear conscience write the positive review you are reading. If you don’t trust my impartiality, fair enough, read somebody else’s review.

[2] Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo, University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame Indiana, 2015

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

Political correctness and the history of science

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will be already aware that the historian David Wootton has written a new book entitled The Invention of Science: A New History of The Scientific Revolution; in The Times (unfortunately behind a pay wall) Gerard DeGroot doesn’t so much review the book as perform a very nasty, vindictive hatchet job on it. DeGroot doesn’t just raise the spectre of eurocentrism in his critic he formally slaps Wootton in the face with it from the very opening paragraph of his review. This raises the question as to whether he is right to do so and whether Wootton is guilty as charged. Before I address these points I would like to briefly review what exactly eurocentrism with respect to the history of science is.

There used to be a brief standard sketch of the history of science, that probably arose some time in the Enlightenment but which owes much of its ethos to Renaissance historiography. This outline usually goes something like this. Science[1] was invented by the ancient Greeks. After the collapse of civilisation in the Dark Ages (a deliberate use of a discredited term here) science was rescued and conserved (but not changed or added to) by the Islamic Empire before being retrieved in the Renaissance by the Europeans, who then went on to create modern science in the Scientific Revolution. This piece of mythology reflected the triumphalist historiography of a colonialist Europe in the throws of dominating and exploiting large parts of the rest of the world.

During the twentieth century historians, many of them Europeans, dismantled this piece of fiction and began to explore and elucidate the histories of science of other cultures such as Egypt, Babylon, China, India and the Islamic Empire, creating in the process a much wider and infinitely more complex picture of the history of science, consisting of transfers of knowledge across space and time throughout the last approximately four thousand years. This newly acquired knowledge exposed anybody who still insisted on propagating part or all of the earlier fairy story to the charge of eurocentrism, a charge that when considering the whole of the history of science is more than justified.

Unfortunately, as I have commented in the past, this also led to an over zealous backlash on behalf of the previously wronged cultures particularly on the Internet. One only needs to state that X (a European) discovered/invented Y (some piece of science, technology, medicine, mathematics…) for some over assiduous commentator (almost always not a historian of science) to pop up saying, that’s not true Z (an Indian, Islamic, Chinese, or whatever scholar) discovered/invented Y long before X was even born. Occasionally these claims are correct but much more often they are inaccurate, exaggerated or just plain false. Any attempt to correct the informant leads inevitably to an accusation of eurocentrism. Eurocentrism has become a sort of universal weapon used indiscriminately whether it is applicable or not.

Wootton’s book deals not with a general universal history of science but as it very clearly states in its subtitle with the Scientific Revolution a historical episode that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period. Whether one is, as a historian, a ‘revolutionary’ or a ‘gradualist’ there is no doubt that following its reintroduction into Europe during the High Middle Ages that which we call science, irrespective of its original sources, underwent a radical change that led to the emergence by, at the latest, the nineteenth century, science as we know it today. The major difference between Wootton and myself is that he thinks this process took place almost entirely within the seventeenth century whereas I see a timeframe stretching from the fourteenth century to at least the middle of the eighteenth.

Wootton is writing about a historical phenomenon that took place exclusively within Europe to accuse him of eurocentrism is to say the least perverse. If this were not a European phenomenon then the so-called Needham question would simply be nonsensical. Joseph Needham (1900-195) was the twentieth century’s greatest historian of Chinese science and instigator of the monumental, on going seven volume Science and Civilisation in China. The question that Needham posed runs as follows “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo [but] had not developed in Chinese civilisation or Indian civilisation?” He could have equally well have posed the same question for the Islamic Empire. Many historians have tacked this question respective the three cultures and their answers are as diverse, as they are inconclusive. Some approach the question by trying to address the reasons for the decline of science and technology in China, India or the Islamic Empire whereas others try to isolate the factors that led to the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Although he doesn’t directly address the Needham question Wootton’s can be seen as an example of the latter.

If I were to be charitable to DeGroot it would appear that his main error lies in his interpretation of the word science as used by Wootton in his main title. It is clear that what Wootton intends is ‘modern science’ as used by Needham in the quote of his famous question above. DeGroot, I think disingenuously choses it to mean any form of scientific activity from anywhere and anytime in human history. We can see this conflict of interpretations in the following quotes from DeGroot:

…to assert that science was invented between certain dates in western European history automatically imposes a proprietary right – by defining science in a certain way it becomes, in essence, European.

[…]

A different intellectual climate existed in India, China and the Middle East, [in the Middle Ages] however. Outside Europe, minds were more open to progress and curiosity fired scientific enquiry. For instance great strides were made in pure and applied mathematics, optics, astronomy and medicine in the Middle East long before Columbus set sail [Wootton sees 1492 and Columbus’ first voyage as the starting point of the Scientific Revolution]. As early as the 10th century, brilliant scientists (not exclusively Muslim) were drawn to centres of learning in Baghdad, Balkh and Bukhara. These scholars considered Europe an intellectual backwater, yet hardly get a mention in this book. In other words, the so-called Scientific Revolution seems like a revolution only if we ignore what was happening outside Europe.

The first quote is a clear accusation of eurocentrism and the second is DeGroot’s attempt to justify his accusation. Nothing he writes in the second quote is wrong but also none of it has any real relevance to the book that David Wootton has written. Interesting is his attempt to deny that the Scientific Revolution ever took place. Whether you think that the very real change in the nature of science that took place in Europe in the Early Modern Period did so in the form of a revolution or more gradually over a longer timeframe to deny its very existence is to fly in the face of the historical facts. Whatever happened in the Islamic Empire between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the Golden Age of Islamic science, other than provided some of the foundations on which Kepler, Galileo, Newton et al built their new science, none of it had very much relevance to what took place in Europe in the seventeenth century.

This point is spelled out very clearly by A. Mark Smith in his recently published book, From Sight to Light, an essential volume for anybody interested in the history of optics. Smith’s book is a counter argument to David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From Al-Kindi to Kepler. Lindberg had argued that Kepler was, so to speak, the crowning glory of the European perspectivist tradition of optics that begins with the introduction of the work of Ibn al-Haytham into Europe in the thirteenth century. Following the same path, starting with ancient Greek optics, Smith, an expert on al-Haytham and Arabic optics, wants to show that Kepler is in fact a break with the perspectivist tradition and a new beginning in the theory of optics, a revolution if you will. Well aware that he might face charges of eurocentrism Smith devotes several pages of his introductions to explaining why such a charge would not be justified. He closes his explanation with the following paragraph:

The same holds for the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It may well be that certain key ideas, laws and concepts that contributed to that evolution were anticipated by Arabic or, for that matter, Indian, Chinese or Mesoamerican thinkers. And it is certainly the case that there was a lively cross-cultural marketplace of commodities and ideas between the Latin “West” and Arabic “East” throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fact remains, though, that it was in Europe that those ideas, laws, concepts were eventually assimilated, refined, channelled, and combined in such a way as to form the basis of what most of us today would characterize as modern optics. Any claim to the contrary strikes me as historically perverse. Furthermore, to contend that the evolution of modern optics over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries happened in Europe is not to give Europe proprietary rights to that science or to accord Europe cultural exceptionalism or superiority for having developed it. I therefore strongly resist any charge of being trapped, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in some grand, master narrative or of engaging in hegemonic discourse.

If we substitute modern science for modern optics in Smith’s eloquent speech for the defence I think we can safely reject as baseless the accusations of eurocentrism that DeGroot makes against Wootton.

 

[1] Throughout this post I shall be using the word science as a collective noun for science, technology, medicine and mathematics to save time and effort whilst writing.

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The growing pile – too many good books not enough time

One of the joys of having a moderately successful history of science blog and being omnipresent in cyberspace as a pedantic historian of science devoted to promoting the discipline is that generous professional writers send me copies of their books to peruse and hopefully review. Unfortunately the pile of such books keeps growing and the amount of time I have been able to devote to serious reading in the last months seems to shrink with every week. To relieve the pressure, and to convince the authors that their books have not been sold off on Amazon Market Place, I have decided to write this post at least giving a basic description of those wonderful tomes waiting for my attention so that readers of this blog can go out and buy them for themselves without having to wait for my reviews.

The ones I’ve started:

Physics, History and God: Tom McLeish – Faith & Wisdom in Science

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Tom McLeish is a professor for modern physics, a historian of medieval science and a devote Christian who has written a challenging contribution to the science and religion debate. As a life-long atheist I am trying to be very careful not to let my personal prejudices influence me whilst reading McLeish’s stimulating book. And very stimulating it is. At the moment I am stalled in the central chapter of the book A Theology of Science but what I have read up till now, more than half of the book, has convinced me that there is much to be got from McLeish’s well argued and extremely well written book. I will report back when I finally finish it.

Problem solving the scientific way: Chad Orzel – Eureka! Discovering Your Inner Scientist

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After two books on teaching physics to dogs, fellow blogger, physicist and popular science writer Chad Orzel has turned his hand to the philosophy of science. However the reader need not fear complex arguments about Kuhn, Popper et al written in words that require constant recourse to a dictionary, Orzel’s book is a delightful romp through the way that scientists in real life solve problems. At the moment I’m stalled about a quarter of the way through because there are ‘more important’ things that I have to read but I shall definitely come back and finish this one because it’s not only informative but a pleasure to read.

DNA the whole story: Matthew CobbLife’s Greatest Secret

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Based on having read the first half this is a superb book. Cobb writes informatively, wittily, entertainingly and with an obviously deep grasp of his material. Up till now I have learned such things as the real story of Rosalind Franklin and Photograph 51, so very different to the myths, and all about Oswald Avery, who I’d never heard of before but whose contribution to the DNA story was mega significant. Don’t wait for my review buy, borrow or as Abbie Hoffman said, steal this book and read it! I promise you that you won’t regret it.

Science contra Copernicus: Christopher M. Graney Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo

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I’ve actually finished this one and the review should appear here shortly. I’ll just say for now that it’s going to be a five star review with extra fairy dust

The ones I haven’t started yet:

Twentieth-Century Physics: Paul Halpern – Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat

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Paul Halpern is an excellent science writer and the subject is one that really interests me so I’m really looking forward to finding the time for this one. I’m certain that it will live up to its excellent reviews.

Renaissance Technology: Paul Engle – Conciatore: The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri

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I don’t have to read this one to know that it is first class history of science and technology. I have been following Paul Engle’s truly excellent blog on the book (and if you don’t already follow it you should!) for a long time and I know that this book is destined to become a classic.

Optics and Art: Laura J. Snyder – Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing

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I was really pleased when Laura Snyder sent me a copy of this book not only because the subject interests me very much indeed, but because if it’s only half as well researched and written as her last book The Philosophical Breakfast Club then it’ll still be twice as good as most other semi-popular history of science books on the market. However I’m convinced it’ll be just as good as the last one and a real pleasure to read as well as being highly educational.

Last but by no means least the latest addition to the pile that arrived just hours ago in the post.

A revisionist view of the scientific revolution: David Wootton – The Invention of Science: A New History of The Scientific Revolution

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David Wootton’s just published new tome, all 770 pages of it, is really burning a hole in my conscience. I would love to drop all my other commitments and dive straight into this challenging book. I know, and David Wootton knows, that he is defending a hypothesis that I, in principle, reject, the real existence of the Scientific Revolution. His personal dedication reads “For Thony in amicable disagreement. Respectfully…” This book has received glowing reviews from both Andrea Wulf and Philip Ball, two science writers whom I regard very highly so I am more than curious if David Woottton can convince me to, at least, modify my views on the so-called Scientific Revolution. I found his last history of science book Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, in which he challenged the orthodox view that Galileo was a devote Catholic, stimulating, challenging and convincing. So I think that I am again in for an interesting intellectual ride through the Early Modern Period in the hands of a master historian. We will see and I will report back when the ride is over.

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