Book of the week: A Brief History of Science

16th November 2001 at 00:00

Brief histories of this or that keep on coming. Thomas Crump in A Brief History of Science: as seen through the development of scientific instruments (Constable pound;20) takes the brief route through science history by concentrating on the hardware of scientific advance.

He considers only some of the apparatus, taking the Rutherfordian line that "All science is either physics or stamp collecting"; his examples come from the so-called "exact sciences", physics and chemistry. He alludes to molecular biology, and ignores the life sciences.

His account starts with the mastery of fire. Charles Darwin once said that fire was probably the greatest discovery made by man, apart from language. After all, fire enabled humans to stay warm, cook, make ceramics and glass, and extract metals from their ores. Fire meant humans could make the lenses and mirrors required for optical devices.

Crump believes the ancient Greeks have a lot to answer for. To their credit, they came up with the alphabet, but fared less well with a number system based on place value. In fact, he argues that the scientific cause stagnated for 1,000 years, held up by Galen's medicine, Aristotle's physics and Ptolemy's astronomy.

That their works were regarded as canonical (authoritative in a way that cannot be questioned) meant that many explanations didn't fit the facts. For example, Ptolemy's epicyclic model of the solar system should mean that the Moon's size would appear to double over the course of the cycle, whereas it does not.

Modern science is defined as the period from the publication in 1543 of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium , the year he died, to 1942, when the first atomic pile went critical. Modern science gave way to post-modern or Big Science, of which the Manhattan project (the A-bomb) based at Los Alamos was the prototype. With Big Science, anything quantifiable increases: cost, size, complexity.

Ian Francis is a science writer and teaches physics at Parmiter's school, Hertfordshire

  • Picture: Galileo's telescope
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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