The Story of Western Science: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 11th, 2017 by bobmorris

story-of-western-scienceThe Story of Western Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory
Susan Wise Bauer
W.W. Norton & Company (2015)

“Life is short, and Art long, the crisis fleeting; experience is perilous, and decisions difficult.” Hippocrates

There are hundreds of co-authors of the “story” of western science and countless more who have received little (if any) credit for their contributions to that narrative. As Susan Wise Bauer suggests, a well-educated mind should at least be familiar with most (if not all of the works on which she focuses in this volume. Some readers may quarrel with some of her selections, others may disagree with what she has to say about this article or that book. So be it. And there are always some nits to be picked.

In the Preface, she makes this distinction: Her book “traces the development of great science writing – the essays and books that have most directly affected and changed the course of scientific investigation. It is intended for the interested and intelligent nonspecialist. It shows science to be a very human pursuit: not an infallible guide to truth, but a deeply personal, sometimes flawed, often misleading, frequently brilliant way of understanding the world.”

I am among the nonspecialists and especially grateful for how she presents an abundance of information, insights, and counsel in layman’s terms, to the extent that is possible and appropriate. Her material is carefully organized within five Parts: The Beginnings (e.g. Hippocrates, Plato, and Aristotle); The Birth of the Method (e.g. Francis Bacon, Galileo Galalei, and Isaac Newton); Reading the Earth (e.g. George-Louis Lesterc, Arthur Holmes, and Walter Alvarez); Reading Life (e.g. Charles Darwin, James D. Watson, and Stephen Jay Gould); and Reading the Cosmos (e.g. Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle, and James Gleick). The significance of their contributions is beyond question.

As I worked my way through Bauer’s lively and eloquent as well as thoughtful delineation of “the story,” I gained a much better awareness and appreciation of the framework or structure within which to trace the progression from ”the world of solids and Gods” that Hippocrates explored to another world twenty-three centuries later in which scientists now struggle to understand — if not predict — the “outcome of complex systems” and the factors that shape them.

This is no doubt what Albert Einstein and Leopold Infield have in mind when suggesting that the ancient investigator of the natural world was like “a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he…will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison.” The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta (1938)

Near the end of the book, Susan Wise Bauer observes, “We cannot predict the outcome of complex systems, in the end, not because they are unpredictable, but because we cannot yet see deeply into the factors that shape them. But, buried deep in chaos theory is the promise – justified or not – that this may not always be the case.” I suggest that we check back in about 2300 years, by which time there will be more and better information available.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out The New York Times Book of Science, Edited by David Corcoran and published by Sterling (2016).

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