|Photo: Tim Lewens|
|Robert Boyle with his laboratory assistant Denis Papin. |
There was no science before 1572, the year that Tycho Brahe saw a new star in the night sky above him. To be sure, the Greeks had made efforts to present their knowledge of nature in a systematic fashion, but they lacked the tools — more specifically they lacked the ways of thinking — that have allowed investigators over the past 300 years to question the traditions that have preceded them, to probe the inner workings of nature, and in so doing to build increasingly informative accounts of the world that surrounds us. These ways of thinking were invented over the course of the 17th century: a period whose momentous significance for all that would come after amply justify naming it ‘the scientific revolution’.
These are the claims David Wootton makes in this big, belligerent book. The book is big because, apparently, his publisher asked that it be so. Wootton obliged by delivering a giant plum pudding of a treatise to Allen Lane, with well over 500 pages of main text laden with nuggets of extraordinary erudition, and soaked generously with three different kinds of scholarly notes — one for references, one for argumentative asides and another for longer reflections on topics in philosophy and historiography that he somehow wasn’t able to fit into the rest of the book.
It is hardly news that Wootton’s period was exceptionally important for the genesis of what we now think of as science. It was the time of the founding of the Royal Society, and the era of the megafauna of natural knowledge: big beasts like Newton, Galileo, Brahe and Kepler. The Invention of Science is nonetheless belligerent because it is dedicated, in large part, to a repeated series of attacks on many of today’s most influential historians of science, whose work has been a disappointment to him. The book ‘was born out of a sense that for the most part, and with some honourable exceptions, historians of science were not doing their subject justice’.
The Harvard historian Steven Shapin — one of Wootton’s many adversaries —notoriously kicked off his own influential account of these times by quipping: ‘There was no such thing as the scientific revolution, and this is a book about it.’ Wootton argues, to the contrary and with great verve, that the very ideas of discovery, fact, evidence, experiment, theory and so forth, were born during the 17th century. These are still, he says, the operative ideas that underlie modern science, and they have been vital elements of our capacity to produce ever-expanding bodies of natural knowledge. And Wootton’s scientific revolution is not an upheaval that can only be discerned in retrospect. He argues that many of his protagonists knew what they were up to, and that this self-conscious zeal on the part of the actors further justifies his insistence that this was a genuine revolution...
One of Wootton’s primary goals in this book is to stamp out a dangerous epidemic of relativism, which he believes has infected the majority of his historical colleagues. He has fun pointing out the silliness of Bruno Latour’s jaw-dropping insinuation — perhaps made in jest, but who can tell with Latour? — that the pharaoh Ramses II could no more have died of tuberculosis than of a machine-gun attack. Latour seems to suggest that Ramses couldn’t have died of tuberculosis because the bacillus was not discovered until 1892. The obvious response is to point out that it’s perfectly possible for a human to die at the hands of agents that no one knows about. To think otherwise would recommend collective virological amnesia as an intervention to eliminate HIV on the grounds that what we don’t know can’t hurt us.
The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution
|The Invention of Science: |
A New History of the Scientific Revolution
Publisher: Harper (December 8, 2015).
The Meaning of Science: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science
|The Meaning of Science: |
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science
Publisher: Basic Books (26 Jan. 2016.