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Illuminating Tales

Thomas Isenhour

To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology. Keith J. Laidler. 384 pp. Oxford University Press, 1998. $50.

In this excellent book, Keith Laidler traces the history of science and technology and the complex relation between them. In such areas as steam technology and photography, he shows how technology often leads, by a great deal of time, the scientific knowledge of the phenomena. And, in a classic reversal, he demonstrates how electrical technology, from motors and generators to radios and telephones, was completely developed scientifically before finding its obvious application. This is a story that every scientist, engineer or person who wishes to understand our technological world, how it came about, and what it is likely to become will want to read and keep for reference.

Laidler gives fascinating insight into the lives of giants like Faraday, Maxwell, Daguerre, Land and Thomson and into how they influenced the creation of our modern, technological world. He chronicles the developments of thermodynamics, photography, electric power, radio, the electric age and quantum theory and relativity. In a section on molecular architecture, Laidler is particularly clever in the way he integrates the development of evolutionary biology in the 19th century with the discoveries of molecular mechanisms in the 20th. The transition from classical to modern science is well illustrated by this example.

Laidler weaves into his presentation examples of the political importance of individuals on the development of science—for one, how Robert Bellamy Clifton, chair of experimental philosophy at Oxford University from 1865 to 1921, personally prevented scientific research at his institution and thereby removed his great university from the competition during one of the greatest eras of discovery science has ever known.

Through Laidler's book, the intricate intertwining of science, engineering and technology becomes apparent, and, although the individual sections on subjects such as photography, electric power and radio transmission can be read independently, the whole presents a fascinating picture of how we got from "there" to "here" and how we will likely proceed in the future.

Laidler finishes with an appropriate discussion of scientists, science and society. He concludes that although it has not always been so, "Technology and engineering must be based on pure science; the time for empirical invention is long past."

We shall see if he is right.—Thomas L. Isenhour, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University


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