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Science: A Four Thousand Year History review – a subversive pleasure


A 15th-century depiction of the Ptolemy world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy’s Geographia (c. 150)



Patricia Fara’s history of science contains all the usual suspects, but they don’t all emerge as heroes. Even Darwin gets a kicking

Tim Radford, theguardian.com, Thursday 15 May 2014 

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Charles Darwin

Darwin took it for granted that women are vain and shallow, writes Patricia Fara in her short history of science. Photograph: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Science history tends to be just history, but with less bloodshed, fewer dastardly plots and hardly any kings or queens. It has a way of following the trajectory of the standard western chronicle of almost anything.

Ferment and creativity begin in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt is a significant part of the story but not as significant as Greece, and in a different way, Rome. The story of ideas always acknowledges a huge debt to Islam, and the savants of Baghdad and Toledo and Cordova. The monkish scholars of the Dark Ages and the universities of the Middle Ages are reminders that the rushlight of learning flickered even in the most benighted periods.

China makes a contribution, but always somehow at arm’s length; India also appears in the narrative, albeit tangentially. And then the Renaissance happens, along with Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. The story of science thereafter cannot be separated from the the Reformation, the Age of Exploration, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and so on, but it can be told with a lot more emphasis on the ideas than on plague, fire and sword.

What makes Patricia Fara’s book a surprise and a subversive pleasure is that her cast of characters contains all the usual suspects, but they don’t necessarily emerge as heroes: she sees them as people of their time, fashioned by the ideas of their time. The second surprise and pleasure is that she sidesteps the temptation of the "one damn thing after another" version of history: this book is wittily organised into big propositions with laconic headings – Interactions, Experiments, Laws, Institutions, Invisibles – and each of these subdivides into smaller, bite-sized themes. Invisibles, for example, addresses the stories of things you cannot see: germs, rays, particles and so on).

This is the smorgasbord version of history: you can graze, and meet the same ingredients more than once, but each time in refreshingly different savours. Religion is a big part of Fara’s story, but for her, religion was one historic way of attempting to understand the great questions of origin and identity, and in that sense is not separable from science. Science, too, could be abused in the way that the religious principles could be abused. The Victorians didn’t necessarily dislike Darwin’s ideas because he challenged the biblical version of creation: that had been challenged long before he turned up.

They disliked his arguments about sexual selection, because it allotted a key role to women (the flashy feathers of the male peacock attract superficial females looking for a mate.) And Darwin was a man of his time. "Taking for granted that women are vain and shallow, he interpreted his observations to build up an argument that inevitably confirmed his original assumption." Because his pronouncements carried the prestige of science they could be used to justify discrimination by allowing people to say that women are just made that way – there’s no point fighting against nature.

Darwin turns up again in the chapter on genes, worrying that "the reckless, degraded and often vicious members of society" tended to increase at a quicker rate that the virtuous and provident, and this provides an opening for a short history of eugenics, beginning with his cousin Francis Galton and embracing Trofim Lysenko as well as Gregor Mendel and William Bateson.

This is the sort of approach that invariably gets called provocative. But that’s the whole point of such brief histories: to provoke further thought, a closer interest, a re-examination, yet another look at how things came to be, and why. The journey from the invention of measurement and the accounting of time in Babylon 4,000 years ago to the atomic clock, the particle collider and the genetic sequencing machine can be seen as a procession of misunderstandings and blunders that happened to be more or less in the right direction, and Fara’s sometimes sardonic telling helps highlight the greatness of the achievement, because the people who made such things happen were mostly so ordinarily human.

She draws on a vast array of other scholarly studies, but she makes this narrative her own, and often waspishly: Darwin gets yet another swift kick in her chapter on chemicals, a chapter that invokes Eve, post-feminist scientists, sickle cell anaemia, William Harvey and Dorothy Hodgkin.

All through the narrative, there are illustrations that serve as prompts for a little lecture on the way we once saw the world of natural philosophy, or see science now. So Maggi Hambling’s oil canvas of the no-longer-young Hodgkin at her untidy desk offers her model of the insulin molecule as something that will "endure forever as evidence of increasingly successful scientific research. In contrast, the half-eaten sandwich is destined to disintegrate, as is Hodgkin herself, whose human transience is emphasised by her gnarled hands …"

Epic political history tends inevitably to highlight the past (so that Genghis Khan, the Emperor Augustus and Napoleon look more like high achievers than, say, Silvio Berlusconi or David Cameron). Science history conversely tends to diminish the past: a journey from darkness into light. Of course Fara has more to say about the last 400 years than the first 3,000, but not all of it is respectful. We seem to have been fumbling in the half-light all along.

Her chapter on the environment traces a thread from Bougainville in Tahiti in 1768 to climate change by way of Capability Brown, Adolf Hitler, John Muir, Ernst Haeckel, Rachel Carson, the Bible and the media-sensitive scientists who have learned in the past 50 years that "the best way of attracting public attention and government funding is to deliver apocalyptic prognoses – nuclear devastation, meteoric bombardment, an impending ice age, global warming. Modern scientific forecasters seem to fulfil the same psychological needs as religious prophets who preached that the end of the world represents God’s punishment of the sinful."

Did I say this book was provocative? My only regret is that I didn’t buy the hardback five years ago, and my only complaint is that the paperback, at nearly 500 pages, won’t lie open on the table.


Tim Radford’s geographical reflection, The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things is published by Fourth Estate

Σελίδα από Jagpalsingh Kauldhar

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