Early Science & Alchemy

A Past Distilled

Robert Malone reviews Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara.

By Robert J. Malone | June 30, 2010
Un missionnaire du moyen âge raconte qu'il avait trouvé le point où le ciel et la Terre se touchent. . .

A man pokes his head through the sphere of the sky to discover the universe beyond.

Patricia Fara. Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 408 pp. $34.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

There is a special thrill in leafing through a book’s index and finding Buzz Aldrin’s name followed by that of Alexander the Great, an unlikely juxtaposition that hints at the breadth of this book. We see in Patricia Fara’s synopsis of science over the millennia a promising trend in the history of science in which mind-aching compendia of who did what yield to stories accessible to the interested reader.

Her book stands in marked contrast to one of the early works that dared to canvass science over the longue durée. George Sarton’s Introduction to the History of Science, written from 1927–1948, required 4,200 pages (weighing in at nearly 16 pounds) to cover the period from Homer to the 14th century. Now, more than 60 years later, a period over which the history of science has matured as a discipline, we are treated to a view of science where centuries are examined in chapters rather than volumes. The promising trend here is not simply that of increased brevity—a welcome entry point for the general reader—but of sheer readability as well. Specialists in the field will likely voice more than a few quibbles about Science: A Four Thousand Year History, but few will deem it dry. Although not as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which examines science with humor, Fara’s book marks an important direction in the discipline: a bona-fide historian of science writing an engaging book for the general reader.

Any work that dares to explore science from the Babylonians to E. O. Wilson will not avoid the charge of being arbitrary. Fara concedes as much, settling on her four millennia as an exercise in symmetry, a temporal structure that begins in the 21st century BCE and speeds through to the 21st century CE. Indeed, symmetry not only describes the book physically—seven sections, divided into seven chapters, many of which are seven pages long—but also the contents itself. Fara argues for a more equal place for women in the history of science, a worthy goal, but one that leads her to create a world in which 19th–century science popularizer Mary Somerville’s name appears and the name of one of the century’s scientific stars, Louis Agassiz, does not. By being arbitrary she is trying to counter the convention that science has been a field in which only men have played. Hers is an uphill battle because the book highlights the political dimension in the history of science, a dimension where being convincing is as important as being right—yet another area in which the male presence has dominated historical works.

Indeed the politics of science, then and now, represents a major theme in the book. For example, those interested in the history of chemistry will find alchemy well represented, as it should be, along with the familiar figures of Boyle, Lavoisier, and Priestley. However, readers also make the acquaintance of lesser-known individuals, such as Marie Paulze (Lavoisier’s wife). Fara recognizes that the Chemical Revolution and the rejection of alchemy are constructs employed by earlier historians to understand chemistry’s evolution. But in Fara’s depiction this new way of thinking is not so much a Gestalt shift as a Gestalt crawl. “There was no key moment,” she writes about the Chemical Revolution. “Change took place gradually” (p. 182). Furthermore, Lavoisier “became an icon of revolutionary chemistry not because he was indubitably right, but because he persuaded influential people that he was” (p. 179).

And here is the political nut of the book. Scientific ideas, it claims, advance not because they are correct; they advance because enough people believe that the ideas are correct. This political dimension echoes in reverse the lament of the 20th-century physicist, Richard Feynman, when he considered the slums of Brazil: we have the scientific knowledge to make these people’s lives better, but we lack enough political will. (And I must arbitrarily digress, because while the reader learns that electromagnetism was the discipline that dominated the 19th century—a somewhat surprising claim—there is no mention of the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of quantum electrodynamics: Feynman.)

But it is too easy to complain about who misses the cut in this book. Fara is to be commended for stepping back—way back—to assess the history of science in its entirety. In her strategy to cover as much as she can, she relies heavily on pictures to prove her points, carefully describing the social context of each illustration, from the meaning of a globe under a table in an 18th-century drawing room to quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s distinctive apparel, demonstrating to the reader that what is happening here is much more than a march toward truth.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of Fara’s book is remarkably Sartonesque, which I consider a good thing. Sarton believed questions that ask whether early science was rational or irrational, art or religion, are futile and that we should occupy ourselves instead with how people identified definite problems and found solutions. Fara follows this sentiment, writing that rather than “worrying about what science is or isn’t, there are more interesting problems to think about,” such as whether or not religion helps or hinders science (p. xiv). Furthermore, being right, she claims, isn’t enough if an idea is to prevail: people must say it is right. And so, in the end, the readers will decide whether or not she is right.