The explosive growth of science means that each successive century gets harder to sum up. There is no decent single-volume survey of 20th-century science, although at least one intrepid author is at work on one. Even the teeming 19th century threatens to burst the bounds of a book.
David Knight, long one of the most prolific historians of science, has already had a crack at the 19th century in The Age of Science, published in 1986. Now, he offers a career-capping return to the job in The Making of Modern Science, not to be confused with Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus' 2005 book Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey, which is that still rarer item, a single-volume survey of the entire field.
The year after a protracted bout of Darwinian celebrations, and acclaim for Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder, few need reminding that the 19th century was a time of remarkable developments in science. But suppose a reader had never thought about what happened to the sciences in Knight's "long century" from 1789 to 1914. What would he or she learn?
Many things: the advances in a host of sciences, including the advent of thermodynamics and evolution, the unification of electricity and magnetism, the rise of atomic theory and identification of germs as the cause of many diseases; the astonishing impact of new technologies in tanning, dyestuffs, railways, steamships, fertiliser and more; the shifts in the centres of scientific power, from France to Germany and finally to the US, with Britain somewhere in there all along; the wide acclaim for science, followed by its separation from the public as specialisation fostered impenetrable language and esoteric concepts; and the role of science in colonisation and empire, national identity and international co-operation, exploration and exploitation.
It is a rich brew, with many more ingredients well mixed into a dozen thematic chapters. Knight's approach is similar to that in his earlier book, although there is commendably little overlap between the older effort and this new, more expansive account. He wants to show science in the round - not just a story of discovery, but a tale of a complex social, cultural and institutional endeavour.
This is the convention of the field these days, and puts what some may consider the real stuff of science in its place. The two great theoretical advances of the second law of thermodynamics and evolution by natural selection, for example, are treated in a single chapter of 20 pages.
This allows for a tremendous breadth of coverage of all the other aspects of science. It would be crazy to reduce a fat century to a single theme, but the book's guiding idea is that these are the years and decades when science moved centre stage, from being the province of wealthy amateurs to the business of a growing profession, and was installed as a crucial part of Western culture and of the West's dominance of the rest. Along the way, the relation between science and technology switched from technology ahead of science to science in front, and science and religion contested more and more territory.
But whatever science's relevance to questions of ultimate value, there was no doubting its material authority and its importance to industrial wealth, military power and public health.
All this is laid out in Knight's panorama. Specialists will doubtless have quibbles. The basic view is Eurocentric, as the author argues it should be, and gives Britain more weight than it probably deserves. The book is stronger on chemistry than, say, geology, and has little to say about the discussion of science in non-elite discourse. But any omissions can be remedied by use of the compendious 70-page bibliography. It is a fine synthesis, the fruit of a lifetime's study and reflection, and should prompt some readers to begin a lifetime study of their own.
The Making of Modern Science: Science, Technology, Medicine and Modernity: 1789-1914
By David Knight. Polity, 2pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780745636757 and 36764. Published 9 October 2009