Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The Scientists

 I recently finished reading The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors, by John Gribbin. This was, unquestionably, among the most fascinating nonfiction books I've read -- and so thoroughly enjoyed -- in years.

Amazon link
In a nutshell, Gribbin reviews 500 years of scientific history, basically from 1500 to 2000 -- centuries that saw the emergence of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. He covered many familiar people, of course: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Darwin, Wallace, Mendel, and Crick and Watson. Bohr, Schrodinger, Pauli, Pauling, Dirac, and de Broglie. Lyell and Wegener. Avogadro, Lavoisier, and Mendeleev. Halley, Herschel, and Hubble. And so many more. 

Why start around 1500? Because that was a watershed. The ancient Greeks (as Gribbin points out) had some profound insights. Because they didn't have the scientific method, those insights -- and some glaring misunderstandings -- came of pondering and philosophizing, without confirmation (or invalidation) from experiment or observation. The ancient Romans -- as terrific as they were as engineers -- added little to those earlier musings. The so-called Dark Ages and Middle Ages similarly saw some significant engineering advances, but nothing we'd understand as science.

At least as fascinating as the panorama of contributions by these most famous of scientists (and their perhaps less familiar personal stories) is the wealth of context Gribbin provides:

  • The many people whose lesser-known work often laid the groundwork for famous breakthroughs. 
  • The cultural and social factors that sometimes advanced, sometimes impeded, progress. 
  • Wars and national rivalries (of which, of course, the world had many during this period). 
  • Religion (whether from the influences of dogma or sectarian wars). 
  • The emergence and subsequent refinements of key technologies (telescopes, microscopes, batteries, spectrometers, vacuum pumps ...) that were necessary precursors to many scientific advances. 
  • The critical role the advancement of mathematics had on the advancement of science. 
  • The difference -- and often, the gaps of many years -- between insightful intuition and rigorous proof (or disproof) of appealing theories. 

Gribbin introduces literally hundreds of lesser-known scientists and engineers, from those who taught or inspired the better-known scientists to the "assistants" who actually performed many of the experiments or made the critical observations commonly attributed to more famous scientists.

My one, minor critique is Gribbin occasionally dwells/detours on a person's family history, sometimes back two generations, more than I'd have preferred -- but YMMV. And to be fair, as often, I found some of the background fascinating.

Science as it's commonly taught glosses over how patient effort, parallel development in related areas, progress of enabling technologies, and social/cultural factors contributed to reaching -- or impeding -- the now-famous breakthroughs. That teaching too often downplays competing claimants for discoveries. It gives short shrift to why educated and thoughtful people might have found competing or precursor theories more credible than what eventually became accepted scientific wisdom, and what eventually made the newer idea convincing.

Are you interested in science? Try this book. Interested in history? Try this book. Highly recommended. That's  The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors, by John Gribbin.

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