Review of "Hidden Histories of Science"
Edited by Robert B. Silvers
Publishers: Granta Books, London (1997).
Reviewed in 1998 by W. P. Palmer. (This is a review of an earlier edition)
The title of this book, indicated that it was just the sort of book I had wanted. The advertisement on the cover was an extract from the UK Sunday Times Review "If you read only one science book this year, make it this one." made purchasing and reading this book even more compelling. How well did the book live up to this early promise? My review has to indicate that, for the most part, I did not find it "a pleasure to read", nor necessarily did I feel that it "excited the imagination" as other reviewers claimed. Yet I did find within the book about half a dozen thoughts that were really novel and intriguing. You too may get new ideas from this book, but I suspect that these ideas will be different for different readers. I do recommend the book, but not unreservedly and not every part may thrill you to the core. There are only five contributors- all fine writers in the field of science and all well known in that field. The titles and authors of the pieces are as follows:
Going unconscious - Jonathan Miller
Ladders and cones: constraining evolution by canonical icons - Stephen Jay Gould
Pursuing the unpopular: a history of courage, viruses, and cancer - Daniel J. Kevles
Genes, environment and organisms - R. C. Lewontin
Scotoma: forgetting and neglect in science - Oliver Sachs.
In terms of science education, the topics relate to the biological rather than the physical sciences and some of the articles relate to phenomena not usually found in school curricula. However two of the articles are on topics, which would be within many school curricula- the causes of cancer and on evolution, yet the point of the articles is not so much on the content, but rather on the concept of "hidden histories". In the case of the evolution, the central theme is the way in which models of an evolutionary tree have influenced later evolutionary theory. The article on cancer indicates the strong historical resistance of researchers to the view that cancer might be caused by a virus. Two new ideas, for me at least, were: from a section of the Lewontin article (p. 136)- the idea that bacteria will be buffeted by molecules of water etc (Brownian Motion) just like grains of pollen in the traditional experiment. I think of the film/book The incredible adventure as is a masterpiece of imagination where the miniaturised submarine when going round the human body inside the circulatory system shows no sign of being affected by Brownian Motion. I would speculate whether this lack of connection might be attributable to the separate teaching of physics and biology.
The second new idea was from the article by Sachs (p.166), which is very readable, where he mentions Einstein's view that new theory does not destroy the old "...but allows us to regain our old concepts from a higher level." I think this gives further insight into Thomas Kuhn's notion of a paradigm shift.
I have thus for myself achieved value from this set of readings; I wish the potential reader even greater new understandings.