BOOK REVIEW Ivy Press October 1, 2019 6 x 9 in., 272 pages, 320 illustrations ISBN: 978-1-7824-0878-9
As a one-time member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Northern California Book Reviewers group, I have done quite a few book reviews over the years, but never have I been so tempted to simply reduce spread after spread as I have with Brian Clegg’s Scientifica Historica. This book is simply visually brilliant. The selection of images as superb, they are beautifully printed on quality paper, and the layout is excellent. Unfortunately, the text does not match the visual content in excellence.
The book is divided into five sections representing historical eras from ancient times to the present: “Ancient World,” “Renaissance in Print,” “Modern Classical,” “Post Classical,” and “The Next Generation.” The sections aspire to the quality of essays but often read more like lists. Clegg dutifully lists book after book in chronological order and provides a little summary and background on each. But this organization does not lend itself to strongly thematic essays, and the text frequently feels as plodding as the visuals are brilliant.
Clegg grows increasingly comfortable, and the essays improve, as he advances in time. “Ancient World” is a bit of a strange hodgepodge. Of its 56 images, only 7 are actually from the ancient world. A couple are from the eighth and ninth centuries, and the remainder are twelfth century or later, with the majority from the early Renaissance. I suspect the reason for this is that Clegg is not really comfortable with books that do not have the modern Western format of folded and bound pages, yet felt obliged to include ancient works that later scientists looked back on.
He certainly is not comfortable or conversant with Asian scrolls or the Asian tradition in general, which is hardly touched on. This is ironic, since the technologies of the book—ink, paper, printing, movable type, metal type—all came to the West from Asia. Clegg writes that “Most of these titles are from Europe and North America. This simply reflects the way that the history of modern science communication—and science itself—has developed. For a book to be significant in the history of science, from the Renaissance up to recent times, it will generally have come from these two continents” This is way too sweeping. The influential music theory of Galileo’s father, Vicenzo, appears to have been at least indirectly influenced by the work of a Chinese author, Zhu Zaiyu, to cite one example. More pertinently, Joseph Needham’s magisterial Science and Civilisation in China runs to some twenty-seven volumes. Clegg would have been on much sounder ground if he had simply said “This book focuses on the Western tradition because that is the area of my interest and expertise.”
In “Renaissance in Print,” Clegg looks at the effect of the Gutenberg revolution, which made printed books available to a wider public, and the voyages of discovery, which called into question established beliefs. Extending through about the end of the eighteenth century, this chapter traces changes in the language and nature of science books that made specialized knowledge more available to a growing scientific community.
“Modern Classical”mainly focuses on the nineteenth century and the rise of specialized sciences. One result of this was the advent of scholarly journals as a medium for the publishing of scientific work. And a result of that was to divide science writing into journal articles, aimed at professionals, and books, which tended to be written for a more general audience. One example of the latter is Audubon’s Birds of America, which is barely science at all, but qualifies, I suppose, on the basis of its close observation and mostly accurate presentation.
“Post Classical” focuses on the twentieth century, in which science became a true profession with a mathematical component that left many general readers behind. Rather than the mere collecting of data, Clegg tells us, these scientists, compared to their predecessors, were more focused on elaborating theories, introducing subjects such as relativity, genetics, and quantum theory.
Around 1980, according to Clegg, the tide turned. “Up to this point,” he says, “many of the key science books were written by leading scientists and tended to take a patronising approach to their audience. But with some notable exceptions, the later popular science titles have been written for a more discerning audience who expect a better quality of writing and accessibility.” Here, in “The Next Generation,” we find such familiar authors as Oliver Sacks, David Attenborough,Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dava Sobel, Bill Bryson, Rebecca Skloot, and others (including one of my favorites, Nick Lane, who gets two brief paragraphs). Curiously, the visual content of these books seems reduced compared to earlier ones, and so they are represented mostly by their covers.
At times, Clegg’s writing seems purposefully dry, as if he did not want to distract from the book’s visual content. For example, he mentions in passing that Newton and Hooke had a poor relationship, “which got worse over time,” but offers not the slightest hint of the reason for that. (I had to consult the internet to learn that they disputed over credit for the idea of gravitation.) Still, he does provide basic information on each of the titles covered, and this should provide readers the key essentials for pursuing those of interest in greater depth.
But what is really wonderful about this book is its visual content, and for that it is highly recommended.