Magnificent seven served with relish on a platter

Essential Classics in Science
October 10, 1997

CD-Roms can take two extremes. They can be experimental exercises in multimedia, pushing the envelope of design, presentation of content and nonlinear practices of reading. Or they can be books in all but form, compressing thousands of pages of text on to the aluminised platter. Essential Classics in Science is, firmly, a cheap and cheerful example of the second case.

The seven authors chosen are the big names of 19th-century science, with the later Einstein granted honorary membership. One full text of each author is included, each accompanied by a rather perfunctory introduction. There are two strands: an evolutionary line centred on Darwin's On the Origin of Species and a string of physicists' texts leading up to The Meaning of Relativity. This editorial strategy gives the CD-Rom a useful coherence and unity. Two of the works that we know were read in detail by Darwin are included in full. Charles Lyell's The Student's Elements of Geology was a popularisation of his argument in The Principles of Geology that the face of the earth had been shaped by the gradual effect of natural forces, and some rocks were of great antiquity. The 240 million year timescale shocked 19th-century audiences, but here controversy is downplayed: we are encouraged in John Gribbin's introduction to read it as if Lyell was "a friendly teacher explaining things to you personally, in clear, everyday language". Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population of 1798 is a valuable inclusion: his insistence that finite available food would limit populations and drive competition was decisive in shaping Darwin's emphasis on the struggle to survive and reproduce. As a companion piece to On the Origin of Species, we get Alfred Russel Wallace's entertaining travel writing The Malay Archipelago (1869). Each text includes original illustrations, to good effect in Wallace's case where drawings such as "Orang-utan attacked by Dyaks" are reproduced well.

The selection of a text by Michael Faraday stems from his role as a communicator of science, rather than as a skilled experimentalist. The Chemical History of a Candle (1861) consists of the notes from a series of Royal Institution children's lectures. It was published when Faraday was nearly 70, and a description of one of his ground-breaking electromagnetism experiments might have been a wiser choice: the editor's justification that the chemical lectures show the "breadth of knowledge of these classical scientists" does not really wash. James Clerk Maxwell's Matter and Motion (1877) is the Scottish theoretician's textbook synthesis of the physical sciences written in the new language of work and energy. Similarly Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity (1922; Sixth Edition of 1954 included here) is a relatively friendly exposition of the author's key arguments. The choice of the authors and texts is therefore promising. However, their presentation is disappointing. John Gribbin provides a three-page introduction to the CD, and one-page potted biographies of the authors. He unconvincingly claims that the value of the texts lies in their authors' shared attribute: "an ability to write clearly and entertainingly; not only to explain their discoveries to non-scientists in accessible terms, but to convey the excitement of carrying out the work". This is deeply retrospective and ahistorical. Darwin's text is not a public understanding of science tract. All the works included here - especially influential and destabilising books such as Darwin's - were written in certain contexts for certain reasons. To try and understand Malthus or Darwin without reference to British mercantilism and empire - red in tooth and claw - is to miss half their impact. Such lack of context is not helped by Gribbin's potted biographies, which do not mention the books in the case of Faraday, Einstein, Lyell and Maxwell. No further literature by historians of science which might fill this gap is listed.

Gribbin expresses hopes that we read these texts as we would a Jane Austen novel. This is praiseworthy - after all, we can learn much about early 19th-century society from Emma. But he seems to be drawing a parallel with Austen as a "good read", and unfortunately CD-Roms are peculiarly ill-designed for lengthy reading - a paper copy wins easily. My study was also slowed because the clunky Adobe Acrobat Reader software supplied is used to present the texts.

If you have a multimedia PC then the CD-Rom is cheaper than buying the books new (but more expensive than second-hand or free online text access). Searching, cutting and pasting is often claimed as the advantage, but my attempts to exploit this led only to rather useless information. Did you know Malthus never used the word "economy"?

Jon Agar is lecturer, Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester.

Essential Classics in Science: Volume 1

Editor - John Gribbin and Pat Coyne
ISBN - 1 901843 009
Publisher - Electric Book Company
Price - £19.95 inc. VAT Windows/Mac/ Unix CD

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