History of Science

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This volume comprising 40 original essays is part of a larger effort by the publisher to provide single-volume compendiums on historical topics. Those published to date are historical volumes on the World, Europe, Britain and America.


History of Science is divided into four broad thematic areas. The first, Roles, covers such things a the natural historian, scientific illustrators, amateurs, and professional scientists. Places and Spaces look at where science is conducted: observatories, museums and botanical gardens, the lab, and universities. The third section, Communication, includes lectures, correspondence networks, and TV. Finally the tools of science are surveyed: microscopes, telescopes, calculating devices, and 3-D models. I have given here just a selection of chapters in each section.


There is naturally overlap between and within the thematic areas. For example, an 11-page survey of astronomical observatories across the world from earliest times is necessarily a very condensed treatment. It is, however, complemented by a 12-page survey of telescopes; and clocks used for astronomical purposes are covered in the chapter Timing Devices.


Some chapter authors are very frank about their focus and what is given short shrift. In the Laboratories chapter, for example, Catherine Jackson says the development of academic laboratories after 1800 is covered, but not “places where industrial processes and military technologies were developed.” She is transparent in explaining this is “driven by a much lesser degree of clarity concerning the grand narrative of these developments.”


Other chapters also highlight the need for more research, and this is one strength of the book, as it tells the sort of reader interested in such surveys what still needs to be done. This is a history book that looks forward. In the Journals and Periodicals chapter, Aileen Fyfe tells us “the role of science in eighteenth-century print culture has yet to be extensively studied.”


The chapter on Museums and Botanical Gardens says at the outset that these institutions “have long been inextricably tied to the development of our modern, knowledge-based economy.” That is true, but Lukas Rieppel's survey pretty much ends in the mid-1800s. Museums of the 21st century are vastly different from those of 1850. He does say museums and gardens now “work hard to attract visitors from all walks of life,” but does not comment on the effectiveness of their new role. Many great cities have science museums now, but none are mentioned as being successful examples that should be emulated. The final paragraph of the chapter quotes a study from 1907.


The is certainly not a picture book- even the chapter on Scientific Illustrators contains only two figures, and there are no colour illustrations in any chapter. Being a history book it rightly includes a chapter on alchemy. It is noted that “alchemists' longstanding claims not merely to imitate, but also create and even improve on, natural materials would stimulate some of the most ambitious claims about the power of technology in seventeenth-century Europe.”


On the subject of television, which nearly everyone can relate to, I am pleased to see a lengthy paragraph on the Pilkington Committee report of 1962 on the state of British Broadcasting. It “called into question the perception that scientific programs were inherently educational.” David Kirby tell us “the report was critical of the fact that much of the BBC's science programming exploited the dramatic nature of the 'space race' rather than focusing on science's educational merits.” He then says one result of this report was the development, in 1963, of the TV series Dr. Who. Much as I love this show, which is still on the air 54 years later, I fail to see how a science fiction program enhanced science education on television. There are still no professorships in time travel. Kirby does not comment on the discordance between science and science fiction on TV.


The index is good but there is room for improvement as the various aspects of the book's world-reach do not extend to that index. The first instance of the name Jean Picard is indexed on pg. 533, but the second instance on pg. 536 is not. The reverse is true for Eustachio Divini: he is first mentioned on pg. 200, which is not indexed, but his entry on pages 533-534 is indexed. These are but two examples relating to people.


The book is edited by Bernard Lightman, a Professor of Humanities at York University in Canada. The 40 contributors come from Great Britain and Europe, the United States, Canada, Colombia and Mexico. Despite the lack of Arabic and Asian contributors, sources from all those areas are included where relevant, but the fact Russia only merits two page entries in the Index suggests Russian sources have not been fully integrated in what purports to be a world history. Scotland, which certainly contributed a lot to science, is entirely absent from the Index. But Scottish education is mentioned in the universities chapter, and the fact Scotland had 60 natural history societies founded in the nineteenth century is in the Academies and Societies chapter. On the positive side, each chapter has its own endnotes and references, typically 2-4 pages long.


Overall a valiant effort to condense in a single (large) book such an extremely diverse subject as the history of science.

In June 2017, Dr. Lightman and Carin Berkowitz are jointly authoring a book on the very topic I highlighted in this review: Science Museums in Transition. It is by Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.


A Companion to the History of Science (601 pages) is $215 from Wiley Blackwell.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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