on 11 August 2011
The subject is the evolution of scientific thought and practice from about 1500 to 1700. A lot happened in that time, and what this book does so well, and in a short space, is to place it all in the intellectual tradition from which modern science developed. This is not a dry catalogue of new discoveries and biographies of those who made them; it is a reasoned account of where science started from, in particular its Aristotelian inheritance, and the advances that were made, often in the face of entrenched cultural attitudes involving religion, alchemy and what we might now call superstition. But the author is careful not to apply hindsight, and does not patronise his subjects. For someone so expert in the field to synthesise in this way is quite an achievement.
This is a distinguished little book. The writing is occasionally a bit turgid, and there are one or two typos, but it can be strongly recommended.
on 23 June 2012
If you have any interest in science, then this short little book should be in your collection. Professor Principe is an extremely knowledgable expert on the history of science and has a very easy-to-read style that is highly educational. His enthusiasm for the subject matter comes across exceptionally well and I found page after page of interesting background information to key scientific ideas. Science can be a bit dry sometimes when all you learn is theory and equations, this book helps to redress the balance by adding the human touch. I really can't praise it enough.
on 10 March 2014
As can be supposed from the title, this is the telling of the story of how modern science emerged. The story of that emergence, however, must be told from something that might loosely be called a beginning. As such, much of the text is devoted to matters that we might no longer regard as being part of the scientific mainstream.
However, in telling the history of science, Principe gives the reader due warning against anachronistic thinking. In this respect, the book makes for a pleasantly refreshing change from some modern sneering of the ideas prior to the scientific revolution. An example of this might be found in how Principe looks at the origins of humanism in the first chapter, noting that its origins are complicated and shaped rather differently from its current dominant form.
Having sketched out the medieval origins of the scientific revolution one might think Principe would simply move on, but this isn't really possible. To understand this one period of history, Principe constantly points us to its origins. If there's one lesson hammered home here it's that the scientific revolution didn't emerge out of some sort of act of intellectual parthenogenesis.
An example of this is his look at how the ideas of Aristotle influenced science, not least in how things are connected, the subject of chapter 2. There's a great little treatise on magia naturalis here which is well worth a read, as it contains a good warning about dismissing past views that are now discarded as being superstitious.
Having laid these foundations, Principe goes on to look at two major topics: the superlunar world and the sublunar world. This mostly covers what we would now know as physics and chemistry, though given the phase in history which is being looked at, chemistry wasn't really developed yet, so Principe uses the term chymistry instead. Without recapitulating it here, these are fantastic chapters which are evident of Principe's rigour and faithfulness to the history of the period.
Having looked at what we would recognise as these two areas, the next, naturally was biology, and indeed that is the subject of the following chapter. We get a whistle-stop tour of anatomy and microbiology, though in his brevity, there is no great loss suffered. Indeed, I could hardly praise Principe's writing enough, as he maintains the reader's interest from start to finish.
This could never be a comprehensive review of the period and all the developments that occurred within it. But insofar as giving the reader an excellent grounding, this is a work I would thoroughly recommend. There are, of course, references and lists of further reading on each subject. But if you have any interest whatsoever in the history of science, please do read it.