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An Urge to Understand and Predict

Ralf Dahm

SCIENCE: A Four Thousand Year History. Patricia Fara xvi + 408 pages. Oxford University Press, 2009. $34.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

Science is the quest to understand new aspects of how our universe works. Why then bother with facts long known, outdated concepts and scientific dead ends? Why consider the past when it is the future you are after? In Science: A Four Thousand Year History, Patricia Fara, a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, compellingly shows how insightful a backward glance can be. She unfurls the fascinating story of how science evolved from humble beginnings some four millennia ago, how it changed and was adapted to different contexts and cultures over the centuries, and how it ultimately came to dominate the world we live in. In the process she dispels many myths regarding the history of science and its protagonists and shows what lessons it holds for us today.

Fara starts at the very beginning of recorded scientific activity. She takes us from the Babylonians and their attempts to measure the world and interpret the progress of the stars, to the great Greek schools of thought and the thriving scientific cultures of China and the Islamic world. She shows how medieval alchemists, magicians and merchants laid the foundations for the burgeoning of science in Renaissance Europe and how, during the Industrial Revolution, science developed from a passion of wealthy gentlemen into a professional career open to all men (and increasingly women). Her account ends in the present, with the emergence of the environmental movement and Big Science projects of the sort that put men on the moon and devised the atomic bomb.

One of the book’s great virtues is that Fara does not just reel off findings and events that influenced the course of science. Instead she integrates them into a wider context and explains how ideas were developed and why they changed. In doing so, she guides us through the evolution of science and addresses such topics as how science emerged from an urge to understand and predict the world; why, from a Western point of view, science in China and Arabic-speaking countries declined after centuries of great achievements; and how those concerned with exploiting the practical aspects of science—apothecaries, herbalists, artisans and alchemists—slowly influenced the scholars at monasteries and universities to perform experiments and engage with the physical world rather than just think about it.

A strong point of Fara’s text is her irreverent approach to enduring legends in the history of science. She argues persuasively that old concepts, rather than being abruptly displaced by new views, are usually gradually transformed into them. The influence of a given idea often can last for centuries. For instance, Aristotle’s notion that matter is continuous dominated scientific thinking for nearly 2,000 years. His critic Epicurus’s hypothesis that matter is built up from discrete atoms flourished briefly around 300 B.C. but then fell out of favor until the 17th century, when scientists like Isaac Newton began to see atomism as the more reasonable theory. Similarly, Aristotle’s conviction that everything must have a purpose dominated scientific thinking for two millennia. Epicurus’s view that the cosmos is governed by chance did not gain the wide support of scientists until relatively recently, with the emergence of quantum physics and molecular genetics in the 20th century. More tangibly, perhaps, even 4,000-year-old Babylonian thinking continues to pervade our world, in that our week still has seven days, an hour 60 minutes and a minute 60 seconds. And the term meteorology is derived from the fact that Babylonian astrologers grouped various celestial bodies and events—meteors, planets, eclipses and clouds—into a single category.

Fara also demythologizes some of the heroes of science. She argues that although tales of inspired insight and heroic feats are very appealing, new concepts are rarely the product of eureka moments or of individual scientists working alone. Gripping stories and exalted reputations are more likely the result of deft promotional activity and a ruthless glossing over of the contributions of others. Thus, rather than glorifying the lives and achievements of key scientists, Fara puts their work into perspective. Moreover, she carefully avoids focusing only on those aspects of their work that would, from today’s point of view, be considered major scientific achievements. Instead she provides a more complete picture of these famous scientists, pointing out their sometimes nonscientific views and downright erroneous beliefs. Take, for example, Sir Isaac Newton, who today is often celebrated as the archetypical scientist. As Fara points out, Newton was also an enthusiastic alchemist and theologian who spent as much time chasing secret powers and trying to improve himself spiritually as he did revolutionizing physics.

Fara reveals that the decisive factors in scientific progress have often been something other than the pursuit of pure knowledge. In the past, for instance, new instruments were often built for commercial reasons. Other influences are less obvious. She stresses the role played by those who spread knowledge through publishing, trade or exploration. In doing so, she goes beyond merely recounting how science itself developed to show how it has been shaped by cultural and economic trends. An example is the revival of natural history during the Renaissance, which owed more to the rapid expansion of international trade—and to the desire of rich Europeans to adorn their homes with exotic plants and animals—than to the investigations of scholars at universities. Fara also analyzes how scientific discoveries in turn shaped the politics and ideology of their time, such as when scientists and politicians in various countries misappropriated Darwin’s ideas to justify large-scale eugenics programs.

Inevitably a book of only 400 pages that tries to cover 4,000 years of human scientific endeavor must remain superficial in its treatment of individual topics. This book therefore excels not so much in the novelty of its insights regarding different periods and cultures as in the comprehensive view it provides of the origin of science and its evolution over the past four millennia. Those interested in more detail can find ideas for further reading at the end of the book. Regrettably, to some extent the book falls victim to the author’s own scientific background. In places it draws a little too heavily on physics (the field she was trained in) and related areas, and it focuses too much on British science. This slight bias is, however, offset by the fact that most of the points Fara makes for one discipline or country apply equally to others.

One curious omission from this otherwise comprehensive book is the Roman Empire. Certainly, Roman scholars did not excel in the sciences as much as those in Greece and in Islamic countries at around that time. But as Fara emphasizes when discussing the Middle Ages, scientific progress very much depends on technological innovation too, and undoubtedly the ancient Romans were great technological innovators.

Overall, this is a very well-written and highly readable book. The language is clear and the arguments are lucid. Frequent examples and anecdotes enliven dry, theoretical concepts. The text is subdivided into short chapters, each of which focuses on a different topic and reads like an independent essay. This makes it inviting for readers who can devote no more than a few moments at a time to reading or who are interested only in specific aspects or periods. Unfortunately, the unnecessarily short chapter titles can make it difficult to determine what an individual chapter actually covers. But with the author’s engaging style of writing, even those dealing with topics that might not normally have captured one’s interest become a pleasure to read.

Ralf Dahm is Director of Scientific Management at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid and is a visiting professor at the University of Padua, Italy.

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