Monday, August 27, 2007

Book review: The scientists

I have to start off by admitting that it had been quite a while since I read any book that was over 500 pages long, with the words neatly typed in a small font size. The Harry Potters don’t count, and their pleasing illustrations and tween-friendly, reassuringly large, bold font and plenty of action make them rather easy to read. But when I saw the exquisite cover of John Gribbin’s The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors I knew it was a book I had to read.

Gribbin, of course, is a formidable science writer, and his In search of Schrodinger’s Cat once taught me more about quantum physics than high school and college did together (admittedly, even after reading the book, I still knew next to nothing about quantum physics). So, when I noticed that he was the author, I expected The Scientists to be creative as well as highly readable. This book sets out to do much more than describe the history and facts behind one (or even a group) of discoveries. The book attempts to describe the past 500 odd years of scientific discovery, starting during the later part of the European renaissance, where a burst of human creativity eventually laid the foundations of the modern scientific method, and progresses to the present times of frenetic scientific activity and discovery by the minute.

Any book that sets off to describe 500 years of discovery takes the risk of being excessively descriptive or tedious, burying the reader in scientific fact or jargon. Constantly talking about great discoveries can effortlessly kill any interest the reader has in science, a fact neatly attested by my own high-school science text books (which were well meaning, but failed to capture our attention). But Gribbin beautifully weaves a tapestry of the stories of the discoverers, the scientists themselves, and through these stories brings out the great scientific discoveries that ushered in the modern world of science. Everyone likes reading stories about people, their lives, their problems, their inspirations, their animosities and their transgressions. But a purely historical account of the great scientists of the past, without describing their discoveries, is meaningless. Gribbon manages to perfectly balance both aspects, and walks through the lives of the scientists who shaped modern science, while beautifully describing (in considerable detail) their contributions not just to that aspect of science, but to scientific thinking and future discoveries as well.

The first chapters of the book are aptly titled Renaissance men and The last of the mystics, starting with the likes of Copernicus, Bruno, William Harvey and moving quickly to Tycho Brahe and Kepler. It is both fascinating and incredible to read about the times in Europe then, in a world deeply clouded by superstition, and where religion (in Europe it was the Catholic Church) had a vice-like grip on all knowledge. The earliest scientists weren’t really called “scientists”, and most of them did quite a bit to ruffle the feathers of those in authority, particularly the church, for which many of them suffered. It is equally interesting to read about their lives, and how many of them were themselves deeply influenced by the church (or were clergymen themselves). While here, Gribbin describes Galileo as the “first scientist”. While describing these early giants, Gribbon subtly but surely brings out the concept of the Scientific method, which was slowly beginning to develop and starting to leave an imprint. In the first few chapters, Gribbon devotes much of the space to a description of the times and the lives of these pioneers, rather than their discoveries alone. This allows him to elegantly establish a historical context from where the modern scientific schools of thought were allowed to emerge from.

It also allows Gribbon to steadily build the pace of the book. The fascinating stories of these scientists draw the reader deep into the book, and allows the reader to paint a picture of these people and their times (the only annoying thing is that I keep picturizing Pope Urban VIII with a bald head, sunken jaws and gleaming schrew-like eyes, while Galileo describes his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and I just can’t get that out of my head). By the third chapter you are engrossed in the book, and are ready to jump into the world of the “founding fathers”, Descartes, Huygens, Boyle and the subsequent “Newtonian revolution” (while Newton was undoubtedly a giant amongst giants, it is without doubt that numerous pioneers like Halley and Hooke played almost as significant a role in ushering the scientific “revolution”). Gribbon also points out that the “scientific revolution” didn’t really happen the way we think “revolutions” happen (giant rumbles and the falling of the Bastille), but slowly churned and grew, with each generation of scientists building upon the work of the preceding one. And from the era of Newton, there was no looking back for the world of science.

After Newton, the face of science changed for ever. The foundations laid by astronomy and classical physics (culminating in the Principia allowed scientists (or “gentlemen scientists”, as they were in those days) to start thinking of simple laws by which the universe worked. The steady discoveries of astronomy and geology meant that geologists and biologists would have to confront the fact that the earth was far older than traditional Biblical interpretations, something that would have substantial ramifications on society. By the time Gribbon finally describes Charles Darwin and his life, he has already described the prior foundations that helped Darwin formulate his theory of natural selection; the substantial work on understanding the age of the earth, the work of Charles Lyell, the earlier work of Hooke and Leeuwenhoeke in describing biological cells (and their similarities), the superb work of Carolus Linneaus (who classified organisms based on similarity, breaking them down from species all the way to phylum and kingdom), and finally the brilliant work of Alfred Wallace, who independently proposed a theory of natural selection, which prompted Darwin to complete and publish his own (more well developed) theory. Given this complete historical context, we understand how it was but inevitable that Darwin (or someone else like Wallace) would naturally have to put all the pieces together.

As the book nears modern times, the pace dramatically starts to increase. After all, by the late 19th century, science was poised to explode. It was the end of the amateur gentleman scientist, and the beginning of the professional scientist. The fields of chemistry, physics and biology started to become distinct. And then with the discovery of radioactivity and the beginnings of quantum physics, the world of science pretty much changed for ever. The chapters describing the work of the likes of Thomson, Rutherford, Plank, Pauli, Heisenberg, Schrodinger and the innumerable contributions of Albert Einstein, all move along at a frenzied pace. There are now too many characters around, and Gribbin can no longer linger on the lives of one or two alone. Yet he manages to squeeze in little anecdotes or stories that keep us, the reader, lapping it all up. Nuggets, like Rutherford being greatly amused when awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry (since at the time the atom was under the purview of chemistry), since Rutherford thought of himself as a physicist and didn’t think too much of chemists, or the story of the Curies, and Marie Curie’s notebooks are to this date still so radioactive that they are kept behind a leaden safe (both Marie and Pierre Curie suffered seriously due to radiation, something they didn’t know about then. So they literally died because of their science). Near the very end, we reach the spectacular discoveries of genetics, DNA, the genetic code and finally, the realm of outer space.

I can only describe this book as a superb effort. It is one of those books that appeals at different levels. A reader can open any chapter and read it independently, enjoying the stories in them. The writing is tight and vividly descriptive, and is simultaneously written for scientists, amateur scientists, science aficionados, historians and everyone who likes a good yarn. The book serves as an outstanding reference for the past 500 years of western scientific thought. There are some books we never buy (but sometimes “borrow”), others we buy just to read once and then forget. But some books are keepers, which we keep going back to again and again, discovering or relishing a new nugget each time we dig into it. This is one of those books.


Anonymous said...

sounds worth a read definitely. i am at the moment reading bill bryson's short history of nearly everything, which i suppose is a much less scholarly work. it too explodes as it reaches the 20th century...

Wavefunction said...

Lucid review. Does Gribbin also give credit to the misrepresented Lamarck, who was especially misrepresented as Darwin's "rival"?

Coincidence...In search a fantastic book that
got me interested in physics too. Gribbin's biographies of Feynman and Hawking are also very readable, and so are his two reference works on the quantum and on cosmology.

The catholic church "apologizing" to Galileo recently was so silly...and hypocritical considering the fact that they still don't believe in evolution, and preach against stem cells and abortion (The popo apparently says he does 'believe' in evolution...but I don't buy his pseudoscientific acceptance)

Many anecdotes come to mind. One about Rutherford recounted by George Gamow in his autobiography My World Line;
Rutherford once received a telegram from the Moscow University physics students society saying "We wish to elect you our honorary president for your discovery that atoms have balls"...
Turns out that "nucleus" translated loosely to "ball" in Russian.

Bryson's book is also great by the way. But I must get my hand on this one.

Peter Mc said...

Glad someone else had a similar experience with Schroedinger's cat.

Anonymous said...
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Sunil said...

Apu, Bill Bryson's book is supposed to be excellent. I haven't read it, but have heard wonderful things about it.

Ashutosh.....I think you should get your hands on this book and read it. I'm almost certain you will enjoy reading it. I think Gribbin is an excellent writer! As far as the catholic church goes, I think even if it remains hypocritical, it is a little bit better than many other churches, at least it doesn't dismiss science completely. But the history of the church (and its conflict with science) is long and sordid.

Peter :-)

Fëanor said...

Hiya. Thanks for this write-up. I agree: Gribbin's books are well-written, and the Schroedinger Cat one did for me what it did for you. (Unfortunately, I then got sidetracked by mystical hokum by Gary Zukav and his ilk.) There are other superb works on the history of science predating Gribbin's, however. There's Morris Kline's magisterial 3 volume Mathematical Thought From Ancient to Modern Times. Superb stuff, this. Nice for dipping into every so often. Also, have you looked at Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers? I thought this was one of the best encyclopaedic treatments of man's engagement with the Universe.

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