From DNA to quantum mechanics to the retrograde motion of Jupiter, interested non-scientists have traditionally learned about new scientific ideas and discoveries from books written by the great thinkers of their time. Charting the evolution of scientific thinking and practice over the past 2,500 years, Susan Wise Bauer here explores the influence of these “great books”.
Structured into five broadly chronological sections, The Story of Science begins with the origins of scientific thinking in ancient Greece and concludes with the emergence in the 20th century of the modern “popular science” genre. Over 28 bite-sized chapters, Bauer describes the characters and events behind the development of the key texts that have contributed to the development of modern scientific thought. In this sense it really is a story rather than a history, focusing on the lives and achievements of the individuals whose collective writings have influenced mankind’s ability to investigate and understand the natural world. This human element is central to the representation of “science” as a human endeavour – a pursuit in which we are intimately entwined with nature, rather than simply detached observers.
Many of these great thinkers were clearly “ahead of their time”, as the well-worn phrase would have it. Their theories and hypotheses about the workings of the natural world would gain credibility and acceptance only after their deaths – typically, as in the case of Alfred Wegener’s “continental drift”, once a cause or mechanism that provided a viable explanation was discovered. Other revolutionary theories and discoveries, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, were initially considered to be controversial by the scientific community, and it took time for their importance to become fully recognised. And while Bauer’s cast can rightly be considered gifted scientists, some early thinkers such as the atomist Democritus appear to have fortuitously “stumbled upon” what are now widely accepted truths but at the time were simply logical, and untestable, explanations for observable phenomena based upon the prevailing system of thinking.
One of the key characteristics of The Story of Science is its emphasis on influential books rather than scientific papers, ie, on literature that is in the main accessible to a non-specialist audience, rather than the preserve of a rarefied scholarly elite. (There are exceptions to this, of course – most notably Isaac Newton’s deliberately obscure Principia and Edwin Hubble’s largely impenetrable The Realm of the Nebulae.) Pointing the reader beyond the few pages that she devotes to each of these stories, Bauer concludes each chapter with a useful guide to the availability and readability of the various translations, print and electronic versions of each book. This is further supplemented by a dedicated website that presents key sections from the relevant documents (where copyright permits), thus offering the opportunity to delve deeper into individual texts.
It is in the final three sections of The Story of Science, focusing on Earth, life and the cosmos respectively, that the importance of the popularisation of science writing becomes strikingly apparent. As science became more specialised in the aftermath of the Second World War, so the scientific community and the knowledge that it generated became less accessible to a lay audience.
Since the publication in 1942 of Julian Huxley’s Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, the writing of books aimed specifically at simplifying and explaining complex ideas has become a critical means of communicating new scientific theories and discoveries to an interested but non-specialist public. From Hippocrates to chaos theory, Bauer’s entertaining and unique synthesis makes accessible the grand ideas of history’s most important scientific thinkers, as revealed in the stories behind these influential books.
Alison Stokes is lecturer in earth and environmental science education, Plymouth University.
The Story of Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory
By Susan Wise Bauer
W. W. Norton, 320pp, £16.99
Published 16 June 2015