Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Story of Western Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory by Susan Wise Bauer (Book Review)

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:

I. 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 different researchers.

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.

III. 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.

V. 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 scientists, works.

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.]