Tuesday, December 26, 2017

David Wootton - The Invention Of Science (Penguin, 2015) ****

David Wootton's "The Invention of Science", has a very appropriate subtitle: "A New History of The Scientific Revolution".

Wootton is a professor of history at the University of York, who has done a lot of actual research by reading the old manuscripts first-hand, which allows him to come with very detailed accounts of how scientists since the renaissance thought about their world they gradually started discovering, but at the same time he has this broad sweeping vision of discoveries and evolutions in a variety of disciplines to give the big picture as well.

He starts by explaining how until 1492, the year of Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas, every intellectual was of the opinion that everything there was to know, was actually already captured in the scriptures and in the texts of the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle as their number one source. Intellectual work was often limited to understanding these texts better, or interpreting them differently. Columbus's discovery came as a shock, because it was evidence that the world was a different place than actually thought, and that not everything was already written. It even changed the concept of time and the concept of progress, since many medieval people, did not consider the Romans or the ancient Greeks as more technologically backward. They were just people living at another time, just as they were living in another place. The idea that new technology could improve things, was not very high on the agenda.

And actually, many of the new discoveries came from the mundane and military. Telescopes evolved from monoculars to watch ships, physics partly evolved from calculating the ballistic trajectory of cannon balls, how double bookkeeping changed the way to represent data, etc. Brahe, Galileo, Copernicus, Bruno, Newton, ... of course all come into the picture, in a way that is both known and new, because Wootton expertly describes what these great scientists thought and felt about their own discoveries, how they struggled, also internally, with the shifting reference frameworks to look at reality.

He expands quite a lot on the simple aspect of using "fact" as evidence, a concept which was totally alien to the world before the early 'modern age'. He describes how experiments were made to test the validity of theoretical assumptions, again something that shattered the words in the books of for instance Galenus. Observation and testing suddenly got valued, and the first experiments with the vaccuum paved the way to create the barometer.

Obviously all this is further increased through the creation of scientific communities, who no longer only needed to write letters to each other, but who, thanks to the invention of the printing press, could share their insights more broadly, generating interest and inviting in comments from many more people to collectively move a better understanding forward. Despite this, the time frame within which new discoveries were accepted as scientific evidence could take and did take much more time than it does today. For instance, Newton's 'Principia' on his discovery of gravity, was first published in 1687, but resistance against his findings continued until the 1740s by other eminent intellectuals such as Huygens and Leibniz.

It's a long book, 570 pages with another 200 of notes, bibliography and index, but amazingly interesting and well written. Wootton knows so many little details about the tests, the personal opinions of the scientists to make it read like a novel. He is also a master in explaining the other side of rational thinking, that was equally part of the world in which science evolved: astrology, alchemy and witchcraft, and other bizarre theories about how our body and our world function.

It is only through this lens that Wootton offers us that we can really understand what progress actually means, and how our current world view has struggled to emancipate itself from the obscure, bizarre, dangerous and sometimes funny worldviews of the past.

A book to read when you have lots of time.

No comments: