Late 17th Century London and the Royal Society provide the setting for this book. It concentrates on the “great men” who created modern Western science.
It is mostly the “great men” we learn about. Towards the end of the book the author does uncover some details of women who were involved in scientific advances but who did not receive the credit they deserved.
What is most fascinating about this book is how the author intertwines the social, political, and personal details of the age. Anyone who just knows high level details of the accomplishments of famous names like Huygens, van Leeuwenhoek, Newton, and Wren will come away from this book with an improved understanding of the times in which “natural philosophy,” engineering, mathematics, biology, and physiology began to emerge in the West.
Interspersed are fascinating details of how secrecy, professional jealousy, international politics, natural disasters, personality, financial competition, and international trade impacted the advance of science and technology. The common thread is the professional and social networks surrounding the London based Royal Society, a group of well-connected intellectuals who, sometimes for entertainment purposes, staged public displays of new and untried experiments.
Not all experiments worked. Some of the descriptions of how animals were experimented on are grisly. Still, the process of publication and peer evaluation that surrounded this truly international organization reflects an orientation towards professional communications that extends to this day.
Another interesting set of details is the importance of instrumentation. Optics, surveying, microscopy, and astronomy depended greatly on the interplay of theory, observation, and manufacturing skill. Those most skilled in manufacturing were not always mathematically or creatively inclined. The relationships among people in these different groups were not always smooth.
New to me was the emphasis on the collection, organization, and graphic description in book form of animal and plant species. A great deal of time and energy was devoted to collecting and categorizing unusual or foreign plant species, sometimes in the hope of discovering patentable medical substances that could remove dependence on expensive foreign sources. This activity helped promote advances in chemistry and medicine. It also, as I am discovering via another book (Jim Enderby’s “A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology”) led to serious 19th Century efforts to scientifically understand heredity and genetics.
Review copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald