The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

Science: A History 1543-2001 By John Gribbin, Allen Lane, £ 20

It’s history all over in popular science these days. Well, almost. The trend was set in 1995 by the commercial success of Longitude. Former staff of New York Times, Dava Sobel, proved one point in her account of the efforts of the carpenter-turned-clockmaker, John Harrison, to invent the marine chronometer and revolutionize exploration by sea-farers — science may be boring, but scientists are not. This realization opened a veritable floodgate, with authors bringing out titles on the history of even mathematical oddities. All those big ideas churned out by the Hawkings, Pinkers and Dawkinses have taken a back seat now, making room for a tastier package: a strong narrative, a lovable protagonist, and a novelistic pace and structure. The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder’s rivetting portrayal of the seven-year odyssey of two Frenchmen in search of the precise length of a metre, and The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow’s tale of a band of 18th-century amateur scientists, are but two examples of the latest history-of-science bestseller.

A very popular name in the pop-science circuit, John Gribbin, has many bestsellers to his credit. It is interesting to see that he, too, has been lured by history (albeit of a different sort), turning to the entire history of modern Western science. His earlier forays into the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, global warming, or the biographies of such geniuses as Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Richard Feynman, make him immensely qualified for this new task. That he has not quite risen up to his reputation is not because of his lack of credentials.

“The most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the Universe is that we are not special,” Gribbin writes in his introduction. “The process began with the work of Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century, which suggested that the Earth is not at the centre of the Universe, and gained momentum after Galileo, early in the seventeenth century, used a telescope to obtain the crucial evidence that the Earth is indeed a planet orbiting the Sun.” With considerable clarity, Gribbin describes the successive waves of astronomical discoveries that showed that the sun too is but an ordinary star, one of the several hundred billions in our Milky Way, which is itself just one among the several hundred billion galaxies present in the cosmos.

A happy coincidence, Gribbin claims, makes the year 1543 a convenient marker for the start of the humiliation of humanity. Not only did Copernicus make that year famous by publishing De Revolutionibus Orbium Colestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies), the tome that displaced the earth from the centre of the cosmos, but it also saw the publication of Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body). The latter was also epochal as it ushered in biological investigations which eventually proved that life is nothing more than a sum of chemical reactions.

Gribbin has deftly put milestones in his survey of the scientific revolution, going from what he calls “Book One” to “Five”, covering the entire saga of human progress in unraveling nature’s secrets. All the five “books” — “Out of the Dark Ages”, “The Founding Fathers”, “The Enlightenment”, “The Big Picture” and “Modern Times” — concentrate on the major scientific figures of the respective eras and reveal how one breakthrough idea led to another. This biographical approach to the history of science is out of academic favour these days, and Gribbin admits knowing that professional historians will accuse him of “being old-fashioned, even reactionary”. Does he care' No. He rejects the Kuhnean idea of “revolutions” in science, maintaining that developments in human knowledge are essentially incremental, step-by-step gains. His credo is that “Science is made by people, not people by science”, which makes him assert, even in this post-genome era, that science is “to some extent” divorced from the economic and social upheavals of the world at large.

That an author subscribing to such a belief will pooh-pooh the historians’ or sociologists’ current dig at science is hardly surprising. Gribbin is harsh with those who claim that science is a “social construct”— that is, Einstein’s general theory of relativity can only be popular in the sense that those Victorian paintings were popular in the 19th century, without any claim to truth. Gribbin confronts such a claim, but, alas, grossly misrepresents the points raised. To argue that a theory that might supercede the GTR will include all the successes of the latter — just as the GTR includes Newton’s theory of gravity within itself — is a travesty of logic in this context. The GTR may have subsumed all the credits of the inverse square law, but do the two models describe nature in the same way' To say that two bodies in space attract each other through some force is not the same as saying that those two dance to the tunes created by that space. Scientific theories may not be directly bred by the social conditions of the day, but there’s no denying that they, too, are products of evolution.

As is expected from a book which calls itself Science: A History, Gribbin’s main fault lies not in what he has discussed, but in what he has not. Of many such acts of omission, two will suffice to support this criticism. Gribbin explains the “Newtonian revolution” at length, through more than 40 pages, but devotes a couple of paragraphs here and there for both the special and the general theories of relativity.

Even more strange is his decision to exclude mathematics altogether from his account of human inventions. Didn’t those dealing with numbers and symbols achieve anything in the last 450 years' Could physics have reached the state that it is in now without the contribution of the Eulers, Lagranges, Laplaces, Riemanns or Poincares' When the British mathematician, Godfrey Harold Hardy, declares “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world”, we consider that to be an exemplary understatement made by a great figure, not a true evaluation of his vocation.

Gribbin’s idea of what science is not reminds us of the stance of the Swedish Nobel committee which, in deference to the will of the discoverer of dynamite, leaves out those devoting their lives to the “queen of sciences” while naming the most important people in science each year.

Email This Page