I highly recommend this book. "The Story of Western Science" is indeed presented as a story, or rather, a series of highly readable stories in 28 succinct chapters ranging, as the subtitle notes, from Aristotle to the Big Bang (and the Butterfly Effect). Bauer's writing style is easy and fresh, even when she is communicating difficult to understand scientific concepts.
The author relies on the writings, i.e., the
key historical books and texts, to illustrate each topic, though she
brings in numerous other key scientists and writings to coherently fill
in the flow of scientific knowledge.
The book is laid out into five Parts, each containing 5-7 chapters:
The Beginnings: Here she covers the first attempts to write down the
principles of science as they are being developed, the first accounts of
the universe, the first thoughts on evolution, the first mathematics to
measure the universe, and the transition from an Earth-centered to
Sun-centered understanding of our worlds.
For example, After
introducing Plato's principles, the differences between him and his
student Aristotle, the Archimedean calculations, and the Lucretian
principles, she introduces the fundamentally and completely erroneous
model of the universe as espoused by Ptolemy. She goes on to Copernicus
and his more accurate, though still flawed and theoretical, heliocentric
view. Along the way the author deftly points out the development of new
ideas and theories, along with their many side tracks and sometimes
century-long disappearances only to reappear in different forms and by
II. The Birth of the Method: All of the
early work by the ancient Greeks and others was largely ad hoc. In this
section she traces the influence of Francis Bacon and the development of
what would become the scientific method of inquiry. No longer reliant
on undocumented grand theory, science would advance by following a
system of observation, experimentation, and reasoning. This would be
assisted by the improving of instruments and "helps" like telescopes,
microscopes, and other devices of measurement and observation.
Reading the Earth: This part begins a series of three parts that take
focused looks at geology, biology, and cosmology. Ironically, the
science of geology got its start in astronomy. As scientists discovered
more about the cosmos, they realized that the Earth is not so special,
i.e., that it was similar to other planets. Thus, processes that effect
other planets and moons, like meteor craters for example, could also
happen here. This led to debates about whether changes in the Earth came
about slowly by the same processes we see today (e.g., volcanism,
erosion) or through catastrophic events (e.g., "the Biblical flood" or
asteroid strike); uniformism vs catastrophism. Along the way there are
conflicts between religion and science, the age of the Earth,
continental drift, and others.
IV. Reading Life: Bauer takes a
look at the first systemic attempts to categorize life on Earth. Debates
about the origin of species, inheritance of traits and genetics,
evolution, and biochemical development were widespread. Again she is
able to tease out the key points from their technical basis and present
them in ways readers can understand. The shift from the obtuse writing
of Copernicus (in Latin) to the writings of Julian Huxley, intentionally
designed to be read by a non-scientific audience, are brought to light.
Reading the Cosmos: In this final part she examines the broader
investigations into relativity, quantum physics, the Big Bang, and
Chaos. She shows the limits of Newtonian physics and how Einstein and
others replaced it with space-time fluctuations that can be hard to
understand even as she makes them more accessible. And then the
replacement, of sorts, of that with quantum jumps.
All of this
she does adroitly, extracting key principles and documenting the myriad
steps and key players as our understanding evolves from one place to the
next (sometimes going back steps or skipping steps, only to return to
them later). Bauer has done a wonderful job showing how science, and
But Bauer goes one step further. Since she
uses key writings of science over the ages as the skeleton on which she
hangs her history, at the end of each chapter she tells you how to find
the books. She even tells the reader which editions to obtain and which
other secondary texts do a good job of explaining the more technical
writings. In the front of the book she lists all of the key texts she
refers to, separated by Part.
To reiterate, I highly recommend
this for anyone who wants to get a solid history of the development of
science from the beginnings to today. Bauer does an excellent job of
making the science accessible without "dumbing it down."
[The Dake Page periodically reviews books related to science and science communication. To see other reviews click here and scroll down. Click here to reach the Amazon page for the book.]