Monday, May 13, 2013

The Scientists by John Gribbin.

There is a time when one has to put aside the objective-sounding pedantry of book review formulae and say “this is a great book.” The discovery and reading of John Gribbin’s The Scientists is one such time.   I apologize for that unseemly outburst of enthusiasm and will attempt to maintain composure. Gribbin’s writing style is clear. His sentence structure is uncomplicated and graceful, which is almost an anomaly among science writers.

The chapters are arranged chronologically to show the evolution of scientific method and the order of conclusions drawn from its employment. One of Gribbin’s most enticing devices is what he does within this chronology. He shows the development of ideas through a series of short biographies on the individual scientists who are credited with first expressing these ideas. This permits the reader to not only follow the progression of scientific thought, but also to learn about the lives of the scientists themselves. By personalizing the subject of science history, Gribbin draws-in those less technically acquainted with the information.

In spite of the effectiveness of this method, Gribbin is self-conscious of his choice. He understands that most modern science historians present their work by following the progress of ideas, without  emphasis on individual heroic genius. So throughout the book, Gribbin attempts to mitigate the effects of his approach. During the introduction, the author stresses that science has not progressed “as a result of the work of a string of irreplaceable geniuses” (Gribbin, p. xix). Instead, progress results from a step by step building of one tested conclusion upon another. When enough information has been gathered, someone takes the next step. Periodically, Gribbin highlights times when anyone could have gotten credit for a discovery: Leibnitz and Newton discovering The Calculus independently, Darwin and Wallace coming up with Natural Selection in the same time period, and the dramatic race between three teams to publish first on the structure of DNA, all make this point.  Einstein’s revolutionizing Theory of Relativity is presented as “inspired” but “not the isolated act of a genius it is often portrayed” (Gribbin, p. 594). Even during his conclusion the author continues to defend his approach.

“But if I am old-fashioned, it is because I choose to be so, not because I am unaware that I am out of step. I am also aware that there are almost as many approaches to the study of history as there are historians, and each approach can shed light on the subject” (Gribbin, p. 613).

Because Gribbin’s approach conveys knowledge on two levels, providing both the chronology of discovery and the biographies of scientists, it hardly needs defending.  The work is immensely engaging and informative.

Another difficulty with which the author must grapple, is how to illustrate scientific models while avoiding a lot of calculations. Modern science undoubtedly relies on a mathematics that is beyond the understanding of the common reader. So this historian must present ideas without overwhelming equations. Undoubtedly, something is missing. But if an author wishes to present this subject to an audience that lacks the literacy of a professional scientist, some compromises are necessary.

One area where the author does not compromise is around the sophistication of the concepts. On several occasions I found myself struggling. Then, about half way through the chapter on Quantum Mechanics, I was utterly lost. However, I saw this as a deficiency in my education, not as the fault of the writer. I subsequently resolved to spend more time learning physics and got some titles from the library. But this reveals a strength of Professor Gribbin’s. If a reader finishes your book wanting to learn more, you have done a fine job of sparking curiosity and inspiring further education. Because Gribbin is so skillful at presenting biographical and scientific information in a clear manner, and because he leaves you wanting more, I recommend The Scientists to those seeking a good general history of Western Science.

Gribbin, John. The Scientists. New York: Random House, 2002.

For a review of a book on the history of science vs religion, see: