Twelve years old, scarved and gloved against the early winter cold, I stand in my driveway in Paramus, N.J., sighting the stars. Consulting my beginner's night-sky chart, I trace out the major constellations, the minor ones erased from view by the mega-wattage escaping Manhattan, just 8 miles to the east. The mythological figures inch across the sky, as if borne by invisible hands, but I accept my astronomy primer's account that the movement is illusory: a reflection of Earth's spin. My driveway communion with the universe is solitary, but I am hardly alone. Despite my youth, prompted perhaps by the archaic star names, I can sense my connection to a much earlier time. I can envision a succession of people down the ages doing precisely what I am doing. Looking upward and outward, and wondering, has been somebody's nighttime ritual ever since our first self-aware ancestors roamed the African savanna.
Don't let its modern sheen or technical details mislead you: Science is history—a chronological accretion of triumphs and setbacks fired by an enduring will to comprehend the natural world. Current discoveries rest on the labor of prior ages, as far back as one cares to look, and are best appreciated in their full historical and social contexts. Every era boasts its roster of talent, its new ideas and wondrous devices. Today we marvel at the Large Hadron Collider; no less significant in its time was Galileo's telescope or Roentgen's X-ray machine, each of which likewise extended our reach into a previously inaccessible realm.
A Little History of Science
By William F. Bynum
Yale, 263 pages, $25
Like the universe itself, the history of science is vast, multitudinous and expanding at an accelerating rate. Is it possible in a book of, say, 300 pages to summarize for a general audience a subject that encompasses the entirety of nature and thousands of participants over all of time? And if so, can it be richer than an annotated timeline of events?
That there can be such a book is the conceit of William F. Bynum, professor emeritus of the history of medicine at University College London. Mr. Bynum's creation, "A Little History of Science," is a conscious nod to "A Little History of the World," the enchanting 1935 children's book by the German art historian E.H. Gombrich. With his melodious, avuncular writing style, Gombrich speaks reassuringly even on matters as grim as the Black Death. Mr. Bynum's prose is more restrained but sufficient to drive this behemoth of a story for both adults and older children. (Occasional juvenile lapses like "icky" and "upset tummies," however, intrude upon otherwise sober descriptions of scientific theories.)
We begin the long trek with the first superstition-infused stirrings of science in ancient Babylonia and Egypt. The primary "scientific" activities—passive observation and ill-informed deduction—center on mathematics, astronomy and medicine. In a stunning innovation, the classical Greeks separate the exploration of nature from myths, superstition and religion. They formulate detailed arguments for the organization of matter into elements and atoms. They apply the rules of Euclidean geometry to the measurement of Earth and heavenly bodies.
In the writings of men like Democritus, Archimedes and Lucretius we see the acuity of antiquity's great minds hobbled by a deficient base of knowledge. At their cockeyed theories, we might slap our foreheads and cry, "What were they thinking?" Yet in the absence of objective, refined data, these proto-scientists were justifiably led astray by common-sense notions of how nature ought to operate.
Mr. Bynum devotes an obligatory chapter to once-vibrant Islamic science and laments its eclipse. India and China make brief appearances as well. The focus of the book, however, is Western science, including its "dark" era in the early Middle Ages and its subsequent reawakening. We feel the rumblings of change as scientists realize that their vaunted forebears might have erred in their interpretations of nature; that objective experiment and measurement, rather than pure cogitation, provide the surest pathway to progress; that mechanical and optical instruments could magnify the capacity of the human senses. The methodological shift, although titanic, is slow to mature. By periodically revisiting his initial topics of study—mathematics, astronomy, medicine—Mr. Bynum illustrates how tenacious the grip of fallacious theories has been, especially when sanctified by the scientific elite or religious institutions.
Just to emphasize how compressed this little history is, let me note that all of pre-Copernican science is sewed up by page 58. Then the pace of discovery picks up, and disciplines beget sub-disciplines, like fleas clinging to fleas. The notion of the scientific generalist—captured by the quaint appellation "natural philosopher"—fades away as the knowledge requirements in broad realms of study burgeon. By the mid-19th century, specialization occurs, and cooperative efforts rise in the form of professional societies, conferences and journals. Mr. Bynum manages to enliven the onrush of technical information with well-wrought anecdotes about key figures in the rise of science. We learn, for instance, about the boyhood, marriage,and unfortunate demise (on the guillotine) of Antoine Lavoisier, the 18th-century father of modern chemistry, before we encounter his famous experiments with oxygen.
A key mark of an enthralling historical narrative is that readers find themselves immersed in the time and mind of bygone characters. In "A Little History of Science," do we remain nestled in our armchairs or transported to the side of the pioneering 16th-century Flemish anatomist Vesalius when we read the following? "Cutting open a dead body is not a particularly pleasant thing to do. After death, the body quickly begins to decay and smell and, in Vesalius's time, there was no way to stop it from rotting. . . . The belly was done first, since the intestines were first to rot. This was followed by the head and brain." If your nose isn't twitching yet, it will as Vesalius continues to slice away at the cadaver. The vibrancy of Mr. Bynum's book, typified by this putrescent scene, rests in large part on the author's uncluttered prose and effective sense of story.
In an abridgment of this sort, the great figures inevitably percolate to the top—Aristotle, Newton, Darwin, Einstein—leaving the impression, perhaps, that science is a succession of home runs by an all-star team. What is revealed in a more granular view is the crowd of quotidian researchers who quietly assemble vital measurements or tweak a crucial aspect of a theory. It is these subordinate characters who represent the wider involvement of humanity in trying to comprehend the natural world. The development of science is less the rarefied exchanges of a few luminaries than the continual thrum of connected minds.
The latter part of "A Little History of Science" is a string of workmanlike synopses of Darwinian evolution, plate tectonics, Einstein's relativity, quantum mechanics, particle physics, genetic research and Big Bang cosmology, with up-to-the-minute nods to dark energy and string theory. One advantage of a brief history is that this impressive roll of modern achievements unfolds while the leaps of prior centuries are still fresh in mind. That juxtaposition of what we know now versus what we knew then is breathtaking to contemplate. While many historical details have been omitted, enough remains to convey the essential human texture of science. In Mr. Bynum's telling, a little history goes a long way.—Mr. Hirshfeld is a professor of physics at UMass Dartmouth and the author, most recently, of "Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes."