Monday, August 3, 2015

And now for something (in fact, many somethings) completely different

I read mostly SF and current science/technology. For a change of pace, I recently pulled off my shelf a thick volume that I had forgotten even owning. It's been years -- at the least -- since I bought it.

But this book was well worth the wait.

Highly recommended
The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, by Daniel J. Boorstin, is as ambitious as the title suggests. Boorstin, if the name isn't familiar, was Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. An historian, educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, his writing is as solid and meticulously detailed as anyone could want -- and for all its encyclopedic depth and breadth, eminently readable.

The Discoverers takes on -- and admirably discharges --  the project of  surveying how our modern scientific understanding came about. It's a scholarly salute to the pioneers of dozens of fields, from explorers to clock makers to archeologists to ... you name it.

Beyond fascinating and cogent introductions to many scientific topics, and the often quirky biographies of the key players, Boorstin provides context. Why did a particular advance occur when it did? Why in one part of the world, or in a particular culture, and not others? How did deference to Ptolemy, Aristotle, Galen, and Confucius, among many,  inform -- or impede -- the development of science? How did prevailing beliefs, both religious and philosophical, advance or impede particular revolutions in thought? How did seemingly disjoint scientific awakenings pave the way for whole new disciplines?

The Discoverers examines geographical exploration, the invention of objective methods of measurement, standardization of calendars and chronologies (how else can one even hope to talk about world history?), evolution, economics, anthropology, the discovery of prehistory, advances in astronomy, and much more.

But beyond its fascinating narratives and diverting anecdotes, The Discoverers offers food for thought. Throughout mankind's millennia-long career, the common understanding(s) of our world's true nature has undergone revolution upon revolution. Much that we moderns immodestly take to be proven fact is of very recent vintage. Most science dates back no more than a few centuries -- and some branches are younger than that. Peer back even a few decades at what was then perceived wisdom, and it looks quaint. Cutting-edge technology from that same era already often seems primitive. It's enough to make one wonder: how much of what we feel certain about today will likewise seem misguided mere decades hence?

The Discovers, by Daniel J. Boorstin. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Boorstin's book is a favorite os mine too. "How did prevailing beliefs, both religious and philosophical, advance or impede particular revolutions in thought?" Interesting points lost in most undergrad history lectures and too many graduate programs.

Being a trained historian now in retirement writing SF, I like to draw on our past enablers and disablers in constructing alien societies, using them as models. An interesting feedback I get from my writing group is, "But that could never happen in a fantasy/SF universe ..." when it has happened and to us in our universe.

I worry that our lack of imagination and education extends not only to our possible futures but to our past, e.g., aliens must have built the pyramids because humans didn't have that capability.