Thursday, July 30, 2009

A long view of science

Science (July 10) has a review of an interesting and ambitious book: Science - A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara. The review is is decent and the book, written by a historian of science at Cambridge University, seems to have some new and interesting things to say. For example, it is great that it takes developments in China seriously and integrates those into the narrative of the origin(s) of science:
Fara has not one birthplace for science, but three. The book is almost unique among popular surveys of the history of science in devoting substantial attention to the Chinese natural philosophical heritage. Almost as ancient as the Babylonian tradition, this is certainly the oldest continuous one, and Fara draws from recent scholarship to flesh out an interesting picture. But this attention peters out fairly early, as the book shifts to the more canonical origin for science.

That would be Europe. For all the attention that Fara devotes to debunking heroic narratives supposedly perpetrated by most historians of science—Isaac Newton draws her particular ire—from Babylon and China she goes on to replicate much of the standard narrative: first Greece, next a light touch on Rome (mostly Galen), the Christian West through to the early modern era, and then a slower pace from the 18th century to the present (with a heavy, some might say excessive, attention to developments in Britain). We only glimpse China once or twice more and never really see Latin America or Africa except from shipboard. (On the other hand, her account of science and medieval Islam is spot on.) I will have to check it out for the Islamic bit. I'm teaching Science in the Islamic World this fall and there may be some good reading material in there.

Here is another interesting point about the book:
Fara tries to situate certain heroes in context, so they don't stand as lone geniuses: "During their own lifetimes, scientific heroes often appeared less important than they do in retrospect, when they are admired for leading presciently towards a future that their contemporaries could not possibly have known about." Very true. So Newton is exposed, warts and all, and Galileo is shoehorned into a brief chapter with the rest of early modern astronomy. But these figures are replaced by new, only slightly less canonical heroes: René Descartes gets a chapter all to himself, and Francis Bacon appears often as a beacon. Perhaps the history of science does need to take its heroes down a peg, but replacing them with the very next tier is surely a stopgap solution.
Ultimately, however, it seems that the scope of the book is simply too large to fit into 424 pages:
Fara's Science attempts to span four thousand years, and it would be churlish to quibble and pettifog about this anecdote or that interpretation. The book can be read with profit as a general introduction to some of what has been happening in the history of science since the 1980s. It offers pretty exciting material. But fundamentally the scale of Fara's project overwhelms it. More science, however defined, has been done since 1945 than in all of history until then. Because Fara boldly takes the long view, she is regrettably forced to foreshorten the recent past. Instead of providing a rousing crescendo, the book's discussion of the present almost whimpers: "The problem is not that scientific technology is in itself bad, but that it can too easily become a tool for domination and coercion." Of science's many histories there is surely more to be said.


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