- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: New York Review of Books (April 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1590170520
- ISBN-13: 978-1590170526
- Product Dimensions: 13.4 x 1.4 x 19.7 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,287,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Hidden Histories of Science Paperback – 1 Apr 2003
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
Hidden Histories of Science
Collection of 5 essays:
jonathan Miller on "Going Unconscious"
Stephen Jay Gould on "Ladders and Cones: Constraining Evolution by Canonical Icons"
Daniel J Kevles on "Pursuing the Unpopular: A History of Courage, Viruses, and Cancer"
R.C Lewontin on "Genese, Environment, and Organisms"
Oliver Sacks on "Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science"
A light read on the topic of: "episodes or themes, in the history of science that seemed to them worth recalling, not least because of what they suggested about the uses or implications of scientific history itself." pg ii Uneven essays, more like something i expect to read on the net rather than in print.
"Going Unconscious" is about hypnotism. An interesting example with the Okey sisters who had been successful "in a Pentecostal congregation in a nearby church, where their glossolalic interventions had attracted admiring attention. The career of these two young women neatly illustrates the way in which the symptoms of serious personality disorders can be shaped and then reshaped, depending on the social intitution in which they manifest themselves. In a congregation which recognized and valued the notion of 'speaking in tongues' the sisters modulated their conduct until they were recognizable as Pentecostal prophets, whereas in the wards of the newly converted professor of medicine their repertoire changed under the influence of Elliotson's positive conditioning and they re-emerged as mesmeric shamans." pg 11
"Ladders and Cones" is S.J.Gould's contribution to the evolution discussion as he points out that the common pictures we all have in our minds as a result of their being published repeatedly. The ladder of life and the cone(tree) of life as dominate motifs transmitted as inaccurate pictures.
"Pursuing the Unpopular" is the best of the essays. On cancer, the 75 year history of retrovirus, following luck and scientific society's disregard to show that oncogenes exist.
"It is difficult to think of another case of scientific advance where almost every one of the key pioneers encountered pointed resistance from his community of peers." I'd offer pirons as the infective agent in mad cow disease and the bacterial infection basis for ulcers as two more cases. "What permitted the pioneers eventually to prevail was to a significant extent their professional courage, imagination, and persistence. Yet it was also the tolerance and pluralism of the basic biomedical research system--the tolerance of deviant ideas and the pluralism that provides niches in which the ideas have a chance to flourish." pg 107-6
"Genes, Environment, and Organisms"
1. mechanistic nature of biological explanations
2. the historical nature of biological explanations
3. the contingency of biological explanations
4. the great need for developmental explanations
5. internal and external explanations play a very important part in the developmental scheme
6. life creates its own environment.
The experiment on page 124 with the supporting picture on page 125 is very good. Take 3 plants, divide each into 3 pieces, plant each piece in a different environment based on elevation. Watch the results that each plant does grow differently in each environment especially as compared to the set of results.
Oliver Sacks is a really good attention-grabbing author, "Scotoma" which is darkness or shadow, as used by neurologists, denote a disconnection, a hiatus in perception caused by a lesion in the central nervous system. pg 150 It is a neat look at several points in science where ideas where lost to be discovered years later, color preception is one of the examples. The radical continguency of science is again looked at mostly in the medical field. This essay was the impetus for the book.
A nice read, nothing great, might have been much more given the taste of each essay, but unfortunately left as a taste and not a full meal.
thanks for reading the essay.