Seiler on Science

Thoughts on the history of science, with a special focus on the relationship between religion and science through history, all coming from an Objectivist perspective. ("Seiler" is pronounced "Sy-ler")

Location: Virginia, United States

Friday, October 23, 2009

Two Good Books on the History of Science

Here are two books I can recommend as good overviews of the history of science. Each of these covers a wide range of different sciences across the broadest range of history. In future blog posts, I plan to discuss more books like this, such as those by David Lindberg and John Gribbin.

Milestones of Science, by Curt Suplee, National Geographic Press, 2000
The size and abundance of illustrations in this National Geographic book may suggest that it is more a coffee-table book than a serious history of science. But by reading through all of the page-length mini-essays, one gets an excellent overview of the entire history of science from the ancient Greeks to the present day, and one learns a little about all of the most important scientists. Because of the format of the book, it doesn't go into much detail on any one topic, and it doesn't say much about overall patterns in the history of ideas.

Landmarks in Western Science: From Prehistory to the Atomic Age, by Peter Whitfield, Routledge Press, 1999
This covers the same basic timespan as Suplee's book, and it is also well illustrated. But it is in many ways a much better book. The chapters are very well written and integrated with the illustrations. Whitfield likes to periodically step back from the mass of historical details in order to make his own integrations, and while some of these are dubious, others are quite impressive and thought-provoking. My only real complaint against Whitfield is the inordinate length of chapter one, on "science" before the Ancient Greeks, which should have been drastically shortened.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why study the history of science?

What is the value in studying the history of science? On my home page I discuss the inspirational value. Another important value is as an aid to understanding science itself.

We live in a world which is deeply shaped by science and science-based technology. We depend on cell phones, computers, antibiotics, CT scanners, nuclear power plants, and countless other technologies. We hear all sorts of statements which claim to be "scientific": Pesticides cause cancer; red wine prevents heart disease; acid rain destroys lakes; auto emissions cause global warming — or global cooling.

In order to live effectively in such a world, some basic knowledge of science is indispensable, and learning about the history of science can be an exciting way of increasing our knowledge of science itself.

According to some educators, the best way to teach science to schoolchildren is in chronological order, with the early scientific discoveries taught first, and the following discoveries taught later. Most of us did not learn science this way in school (I know I didn't), but perhaps it's not too late for us to go back as adults and reground our knowledge of science by studying its history.

The history of science has many lessons for us about science in general. Such lessons include:
  • Science is cumulative, with later discoveries usually depending on earlier ones.
  • Science is based ultimately on careful observations of the physical world.
  • Science can make mistakes, but well-grounded scientific conclusions can justify our confidence in them.
  • There are many historical factors which can influence the development of science in a culture, including the dominant philosophy, the level of material prosperity, the political conditions, and the existence of certain unique individuals.