[4 December 2012]
William F. Bynum’s addition to the Yale University Press line of ‘little history books’ is about science: the roots of our modern understanding and the steps intellectuals took to explore key aspects of our natural world. Professor emeritus in history of medicine at University College London in England, Bynum is well positioned to delve into this field with an established research background. Whether you’re an entrenched aficionado who loves to know the whys and wherefores of what makes our world tick, or you’re interested in learning a few things about how chemistry emerged from the field of alchemy or how the lights turn on when you flip a switch, this book is engaging for a variety of readers.
Starting in on A Little History of Science, I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s work, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is a wonderful dive into the science and workings of the universe itself and a great lesson in all the bits and pieces we should’ve learned in school but may have forgotten. Bryson writes with a sense of humor that is very appealing, and Bynum, as well, has a sincere and genial take on the history of science that is easy to read and very approachable.
Compared to Bryson’s complex history of the cosmos, Bynum’s work is more of a relaxed dip into the history of science subject area, offering brief forays into stories that average about five pages and are written in a style to appeal to a range of readers. The occasional high level vocabulary word is often explained neatly in parentheses or within the text for early readers. This is artfully done so the reader doesn’t notice, or can gloss over if already familiar with the term. I found this preferable to a glossary, and the practice added to my certainty that this book would be well received by inquisitive young readers.
I love that Bynum’s book is appealing to such a range of readers, and it’s also the kind of work that you can open up to any section and learn something new or refamiliarize yourself with an old story. Naturally, the book is organized on a timeline, and Bynum refers to the field’s predecessors, but it’s simple to jump in and read a few chapters without committing to a cover-to-cover scenario. This is a great resource for lovers of trivia who want to remember the names of the famous or not so famous scientific figures who changed our understanding of the natural world.
Bynum starts in China and East Asia, but the book mainly focuses on European developments in science, as our history books tell us that this hotbed is where most of the action happened—at least in relatively modern history. Bynum covers a broad scope of history, from the early BC era through the dark ages and Renaissance, finally summing up some of the chemical warfare and munitions developments that ended World War II. Bynum’s work has great value for reminding us of the wonderful stories that make up our understanding of modern science.
Every chapter is headed by a lovely wood cut style black and white illustration to playfully illustrate the central concepts to come. Many chapters cover a number of main characters who moved a certain field forward; for example, “Forces, fields and magnetism” includes information about both known and unheralded scientists who worked with electric currents and electromagnetism. Bynum often focuses on the connections between scientists, those who built on the work of others who came before them or solved mysteries that their predecessors couldn’t quite work through.
Other chapters focus specifically on individual heroes, like a chapter on Newton called “What Goes Up”. Newton was incredibly productive, and his name is well known, but he was apparently a very dislikable fellow. Another great aspect of Bynum’s focus is giving a little bit of context about the origins and background of the scientists whose work is the foundation of these stories, for example their level of access to education. Although many philosophers who we’d now consider scientists were raised in families with wealth and therefore access to education, just as many relied on their own resourcefulness to explore the nature world. Bynum also focuses on factors like politics and religion that impacted scientists’ work. Spotlights shine on the work of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Einstein and many more.
Taken as a whole, A Little History of Science is a lot to digest, but this is a wonderful book to keep on the shelf and revisit over time.