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The author reminds us that the original meaning of `science' covered all knowledge, and the branch we now call science was previously called Natural Philosophy. The word `scientist' was coined only in 1833. How science in the modern sense came to separate itself from other kinds of knowledge is one of the themes of this survey which awesomely ranges over all the sciences. Other themes that frequently recur in it include:

1. Debunking the cult of the lone genius who advances knowledge purely by his own discoveries. Although Newton acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of giants, many other famous scientists are shown as ruthless and successful self-publicists. So we often ignore the earlier ideas on which they drew, and we sometimes ascribe to them the contributions of their later followers. Particularly from the late 17th century onwards, scientists are helped by being part of communities operating in well-organized scientific institutions. Patricia Fara also repeatedly notes the time interval between scientific discoveries and their general acceptance.

2. Showing that even what now seem the most ludicrous `scientific' procedures like alchemy have made contributions to later science - in this case, for example, the notions of experimental chemistry, the creation of some apparatus, the isolation of certain chemicals and, perhaps above all, the willingness to manipulate nature, not merely to understand it. So not only alchemists but also magicians like Paracelsus and John Dee, whose mathematical skills made many people believe in their medical prescriptions, find a place in Patricia Fara's history of science.

3. Showing how the pursuit of science was, until fairly recently, not regarded as an end in itself, but was shaped to support pre-existing philosophical or theological concepts. One example is the effort of Kepler and Copernicus to marry their observations respectively to Neoplatonic and Pythagorean notions of harmony. Botanical and anthropological classifications reflected and then reinforced existing prejudices about the hierarchies of gender and race. And even today, Patricia Fara points out, preconceived ideas can influence the compilation and interpretation of data - not to mention the occasional falsification of data or suppression inconvenient results in battles between scientists.

4. Pointing out that the material about which scientists have theorized has often been provided by hosts of unnamed and unacknowledged practical men and sometimes women. During the despised Middle Ages, it was some humble technical inventions and innovations that made revolutionary contributions to progress in agriculture, and instruments initially designed by artisans for practical purposes (navigating, timing, weighing and measuring) provided the initial tools, sometimes refined or adapted by scientists, for scientific progress. The snobbish distinction between gentlemen and aristocrats who "philosophized" about science and those who worked with their hands (and for gain) runs through much of the history of science. Only rarely were those women who collaborated with their menfolk in scientific work acknowledged; and not until 1945 were the first two women actually admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. And when in the 19th century explorer went to remote parts of the globe on scientific expeditions, in their sense of European superiority they scarcely mentioned the native guides whose local knowledge contributed so much to theirs.

5. Stressing that any successful development of science depends on supportive infrastructures - technological, economic, institutional, political, and cultural. There are interesting illustrations of how the development of science has been affected when it was left largely to free enterprise and commerce (as in 19th century Britain), compared with how it fared with state support (for better, as in 19th century Germany) or worse (as in 19th century France).

6. Combatting (surely outdated) Eurocentric histories of science and stressing the scientific ideas that reached Europe from China, India and the Middle East. Apparently it was not until Joseph Needham's work in the 1950s that Europeans appreciated just how many inventions originated in China and not in the European Renaissance; and there are some socio-political suggestions why Chinese and Arabic inventions did not lead to the explosive efflorescence to which they would lead in Europe.

Apart from these themes, a wealth of fascinating material is packed into this book. Having started with the Babylonians, its last section is a thoughtful and thought-provoking survey of where the different sciences stand today, and also of how important aspects of it are enmeshed in international commercial and military rivalries.

Inevitably there are some passages which many non-scientist will find difficult to follow, especially when we reach modern physics; but they are remarkably few. The style is always limpid and sometimes conversational; the tone pleasantly iconoclastic, occasionally sarcastic and once or twice even cynical in the attribution of motives. And the many illustrations, though often too small for comfort (you can often find bigger versions on Google Images), are beautifully chosen and analyzed to show the social attitudes which inspired them.

A splendid achievement.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 15 November 2009
Back in the seventies, Jacob Bronowski's TV series, and more particularly the book of the series The Ascent Of Man, had a profound impact on my worldview. The book is still on my shelves and, though it's a long time since I last read it, it has been read many times over the years. Bronowski's skill was his ability to combine a history of science with a history of civilisation, to the point where the two are shown as they really are, inextricably intertwined. Whilst slightly less broad-ranging in its scope, Patricia Fara's Science: A Four Thousand Year History looks much more deeply into the science component. Inevitably there are overlaps, to the point where they both use Joseph Wright's The Orrery as an illustration, but ultimately the two experiences are complementary, not a duplication.

Overall Fara's book is a remarkable endeavour, not quite on the scale of Cynthia Stokes Brown's Big History, which takes in the history of everything within a similar space, but certainly equalling it in bringing the helicopter down to get a slightly more refined view.

Along the way, Fara is not afraid to sully a few sacred cows: Darwin, for example, was not only in keeping with his times in his misogyny - some of his pronouncements look very much like a foundation for the nasty wing of eugenics; Pasteur seems to have had no qualms about using people as human guinea pigs for his concoctions; and Fleming sat on his discovery of penicillin for 15 months before it was finally brought into usefulness by a small army of scientists and American finance.

The book is very much a work of its time, considering not only the way in which the contribution of women has been marginalised in common mythologies, but also that often the progress of science is not quite as heroic (in the sense of one person doing all the work) as these mythologies often portray: there is a whole army of unsung contributors, with the people who are remembered often being those best at self-promotion. This is a point well brought out, with considerably more detail, in Martin Rudwick's Bursting The Limits Of Time, a study of early geology and palaeontology.

In discussing the research of William Crookes into radiation, Fara captures the essence of scientific endeavour: "If you automatically reject the unfamiliar, and refuse to investigate it, then nothing new will be revealed," and this is a point repeatedly made through example.

Crookes, incidentally, sometimes becomes Crooke, but the possessive, Crookes's, is rendered correctly; the possessive of Descartes is given both as Descartes's (correct, though annoyingly and not surprisingly Word tries to "correct" this form) and Descartes' (incorrect; how would you pronounce it, given that nothing after the "r" is used in French pronunciation?). This I put down to editing, and similarly with when the strains of cramming 4000 years of history show at the beginning of Part 6 Chapter 2, when Fara seems to suggest that the Spanish Reconquista was completed in the late 11th Century, when in fact what she's talking about is the recovery of Toledo (1085) - Toledo does not get mentioned until later. But talking of the Reconquista, she seems to swallow the notion, which many commentators have questioned, that something was being "retaken" by the "Spanish", ignoring the Crusader intent of Los Reyes Catolicos, Isobel and Ferdinand, whose provinces were properly just Castile and Aragon.

Quite rightly, Fara gives due credit to non-European contributors to scientific progress, particularly those of the Middle East (including, as it happens, pre-Reconquista Spain). She does so, though, almost as if she alone realises this contribution, whereas Bronowski, forty years ago, acknowledged it, as do at least two more recent books, Peter Bentley's The Book Of Numbers and John Gill's Andalucía.

And I can't complete a review of this kind of book without mentioning, at the risk of attracting the ire of certain reactionaries, the use of BC/AD against BCE/CE to indicate dates. Where some authors who should know better (including, ironically, the imam of atheism himself, Richard Dawkins!) stick to BC/AD, Fara sits on the fence, using BCE and AD! Now I really don't get that!

Cavils aside, though, this is an excellent book, putting in perspective four millennia of scientific endeavour, and giving an indispensable view of whose shoulders we're standing on nowadays.
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on 19 August 2010
Given Patricia Fara's excellent credentials, one might be forgiven for expecting an impartial account of science's contribution to civilization over the last four millennia. Nonetheless, despite the book's ambitious scope and the title's bold promise, it seems that Fara is less interested in presenting a coherent historical narrative as she is in engaging in blatant historical revisionism built on nothing more substantial than personal ideology and a tenuous platform of cultural guilt.

Clearly, there's nothing inherently wrong with challenging the status quo or confronting systemic inaccuracies after all, that's what good science is based on and Fara accepts the role of iconoclast with alacrity: however, in her haste to promote her socio-political agendas, her work is littered with sweeping generalisations, logical fallacies and prosaic inconsistencies that, more often than not, result in outright contradictions or the ridiculous rehashing of long discredited canards. Employing religious metaphor throughout her work, she recasts scientific figures as heroes and villains to suit her world view, elevating some actors (generally women) to a status that belies their modest contribution and attacking others (predominantly men) for failing to meet the (her) standards of modernity. Indeed, most scientists (the middle-class, white-male type, anyway) are characterised as self-promoting liars who usurp credit and exaggerate research findings in pursuit of funds for some undisclosed nefarious end. No (male) scientist is safe from Fara's attention: she even belittles Newton; deriding him as an alchemist (pp.5-6, p.165) despite devoting a whole chapter (II ch.7 pp.100-107) to alchemy's role in the birth of modern chemistry. Moreover, not content with limiting her criticism to science, Fara also takes the occasional swipe at non-scientists; branding Dickens' humanism as nothing more than petty self-interest (p.312).

Of course, she does have a point: it is entirely proper to address the inequities of a (still) male-dominated society and apportion credit to those who contribute most to progress (whatever sex they happen to be). However, there is nothing novel in this approach and other authors (Bizony (2007), Singh (2004), Dawkins (TV 1996), et al) have managed to restore some balance without the need to embark on a wholesale revision of history. Moreover, it is meaningless to divorce a discussion on the subject of sexual inequality from the context in which it flourishes and Fara avoids the opportunity to explore the role of religion in marginalising women in both society generally and the scientific endeavour particularly, preferring instead to extol Christianity as the guardian of science during the Middle Ages (p.83) and Islam as a religion that "inherently fosters education" (p.69).

However, the fatal flaw with Fara's work is the bizarre suggestion that no scientific luminary is worthy of celebration because "[e]verybody has predecessors" (p.6). In Fara's homogenised world, everyone deserves equal credit unless they can demonstrate a genuinely original advance or some unique insight. Even Einstein doesn't qualify having "relied heavily on the work of other mathematicians" (p.298) and failing to develop the Theory of Relativity in a single leap. What Fara fails to appreciate (or simply ignores) is the fact that science is a "self-correcting enterprise" (Sagan 2008 p.110): knowledge is cumulative (a gift from our predecessors) but some contributors (Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and many others) changed the way that we think about the universe, correcting misconceptions and advancing the cause of science. These contributions are not always realised overnight and perhaps even introduce new errors into the scientific body of knowledge: however, building on the efforts of their predecessors, such contributors' insights and efforts add significantly to the advancement of civilization and that, surely, is something to be celebrated.

The irony is that, despite the deep flaws in this book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fara challenges preconceptions and forces the reader to confront their own prejudice even if her conclusions are suspect.
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on 4 October 2011
Despite being an avid reader of anything about the history of science in general and the history of astronomy in particular, I had to give up in exasperation after a few chapters. That'll teach me to rely on Amazon reviews! Everything is filtered through Fara's 21st century feminist world view. OK, so there weren't many prominent women scientists going back in history, but why go on about it instead of accepting that that was the way the world was? Let's celebrate the achievements of Caroline Herschel, Marie Curie, Henrietta Leavitt etc and look forward to many more women at the forefront of science in the more enlightened future.
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on 25 February 2014
Reading this book left the impression that the author really wanted to write a book about the largely un-recognised contributions women have made to science. I wish she had written that book, instead of this one which reads like something written by someone straining to be controversial or not unlike a teenager determined to upset her parents with what to her is provocative behaviour, but to everyone else is just a bit twee and tiresome.
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on 1 January 2017
I do wish that her personal politics were not so obvious. The first half seemed to emphasize that the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians discovered everything and the rest of us then plagierised the ideas. So Newton and Gallileo were plagerizers then?. The book became much better in the second half and she was right to emphasize Franklin's part in the discovery of penicillin. A more classic historical approach to this work could have been so much better.
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Patricia Fara departs from five hypotheses: (1)"Women scientists do not get the respect they deserve", (2) "objective measurement is an illusion", (3) "scientific breakthroughs are never the work of a single scientist", (4) "scientists are vain and controlled by money and power", and (5) "the scientist with the better personal promotional skills allways wins in the end". She could have taken a detached analytical approached (scientific?) and looked at which cases substantiated and which falsified her five hypotheses. Instead, she chooses to follow each case study with a very carefully selected subset of these five "facts" - depending on which of them can be substantiated by this particular case. Add to that, that every time she says QED wrt one of her five "facts" it happens in a tone of clear moral indignation. Oh, and by the way, I'm sure prof. Fara would put this review down to "fact" no (1).
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on 28 February 2010
I expected quite a lot from this book. The title must have meant something, mustn't it? Four thousand years must have meant something, mustn't it? I expected at least thorough coverage of science's history. On the contrary, I stumbled upon a collection of essays more or less touching some of the episodes from the history of science.
The author is trying forcefully (at lest to my taste) to convince us to see the scientific discoveries as results of human drive to richness, power, acclaim, etc. Hey, we have known that! Is it in anyway revealing? Have we believed in the "grammar school" story about scientists thinking about nothing elese but "the advancement of human thought". Anyone who has gone beyond this too simplistic a view, must have known that. That's why the book gets irritating after not too many chapters.
The author accuses previous accounts of the history of science of being too dependent on their times, of being too "romanticized". She doesn't seem to understand that her book isn't better in this respect. It's written from feminist's point of view. She hardly portrays any women in science as anything worse than hard working individulas only to be cheated by vicious men. I understand that the role o women in the history of science may be underestimated, but this style of persuading us that it has been so misses the point, I think.
Besides, the author creates herself as an "impartial" accountant of history. Unfortunately, she's a militant antidarwinist, accusing Darwin of being a misogynist. Of course, she does it from the perspective of the first decade of the XXI century, "forgetting" to mention all the relevant contexts of XIX - century Britain. It was he, she asserts quite openly, who laid the foundations for eugenics, who divided people into better and worse. Well, people are biological beings, and some of them are more able than others thanks to heritable characteristics, whether someone likes it or not. There are differences between races, that do not stop at the subcutaneous tissue level...
I'm disappointed with this book, because in spite of what it promised to be, it is highly politicised product.
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on 20 October 2013
This was a very informative and interesting read. Patricia Fara had not so much an axe to grind as the wish to perhaps undo some of the previous grinding of axes that have sought to elevate "science" and its progress onto a pedestal.........and a pedestal that was thought and claimed to be very Eurocentric. Patricia obviously loves her subject, and often expresses her knowledge with a deft touch of humour as she brings it to our attention by little asides that just perhaps the female of the species has had, and does have, a brain. And one image that she conveyed at one point, of how light itself plays its necessary part as it passes through the more "didactic" stained glass imagery of Chartres Cathedral, has remained with me and continues to illuminate; in various contexts. Thank you.
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on 24 April 2012
I found this book a real page turner. Each chapter related information in a clear and concise way, and the author assumes a little knowledge of science from the reader. What was significant was the fact that there is no single scientist who has made a single discovery without the help or the finding of another. Newton was right when he said that he stood on the shoulder of giants, although this might have been a swipe at another scientist at the time. The chapter on genes was the most interesting since in one paragraph and (I leave you to find that paragraph) the author disassembles Richard Dawkins argument about the selfish gene. A must read just for that!
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