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'Voyaging in Strange Seas' Tells of the Deep, Wide Roots of Modern Science

The history of the Scientific Revolution, retold: Clear, detailed, and as overwhelming as drinking from a fire hose.

Voyaging in Strange Seas

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 344 pages
Author: David Knight
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-05

The first chapters of high-school science textbooks and the first semesters of college world history courses often discuss an event they call the "Scientific Revolution". Like its French, American, and Russian counterparts, it is always capitalized, and also like them, it is reckoned as a milestone on the road to the modern world. Like its political analogs, it is presented in a brisk narrative with clearly defined endpoints, easily identifiable heroes and villains, and an unambiguous outcome.

The "textbook version" of the Scientific Revolution begins with Nicholas Copernicus proclaiming (in 1543) that the Earth orbits the Sun and ends with Isaac Newton showing (in 1687) that the motions of the planets in their orbits are governed by the same natural laws as the motions of everyday objects on Earth. Covering the century-and-a-half between those events, textbook versions of the Scientific Revolution round up the usual suspects: Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, William Harvey and Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek. The story it weaves around them follows a dramatically satisfying arc: a slow climb from ignorance to enlightenment, ending with the birth of modern science.

The textbook version of the Scientific Revolution has been polished and streamlined by endless repetition. It is neat, tidy, easily digested and, in crucial ways, misleading if not flat-out wrong. "Science" is not a single, unified enterprise, but a tangled skein of semi-independent disciplines distinguished from one another by their tools, methods, and settings as well as by their subject matter. The study of astronomy, human anatomy, and the physics of moving bodies did undergo radical transformations in the century-and-a-half between Copernicus and Newton.

Other fields changed later, and less tidily.The equivalent transformation of geology and paleontology began in the 1660s and lasted until 1800 or so; in chemistry, it began and ended later still. Cartography—the science of accurately plotting a spherical world on a flat map—began to take shape in mid-15th century Portugal and reached an early peak 350 years later in post-Revolutionary France.

Across the disciplines, new scientific ideas emerged in tandem with new technological breakthroughs like the telescope, the microscope, and the Leyden jar (which allowed static electricity to be stored, then discharged at will). Their history was also interwoven with changes in the everyday world. The expansion of maritime trade brought Europeans into contact with new plants, animals, and landscapes that challenged old ideas about nature. Day-to-day medical practice shaped, as well as was being shaped, by the theories of learned physicians. The tradesmen who cast metal, blended gunpowder, and brewed beer built, in the process, a body of knowledge that would, in time, feed into the emerging science of chemistry.

The more such strands are added to the story of science in the early modern era, the less the word "Revolution" (with its connotations of rapid, spasmodic change) seems justified. Simon Shapin, an eminent historian of 17th-century science, began his slim volume The Scientific Revolution (1996) by declaring—tongue only slightly in cheek—that: "There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it."

David Knight, an eminent historian of late-18th- and 19th-century science, would, I suspect, agree with Shapin. Voyaging in Strange Seas, like Shapin's The Scientific Revolution, sets out to complicate the too-tidy, too-streamlined "textbook version" narrative of the Scientific Revolution. The two historians, however, approach their shared goal from opposite directions. Wherein Shapin's brief book makes the familiar Scientific Revolution narrative unfamiliar by analyzing it from new perspectives, Knight's expansive one does so by imbedding the familiar narrative in a (much) broader, richer historical context than it is usually given.

The "Great Revolution in Science" referenced in Knight's subtitle spans nearly three centuries, beginning with Columbus' first voyage to the New World in 1492 and ending with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is, therefore, roughly double the length of the textbooks' Scientific Revolution, beginning about 50 years earlier and ending about 100 years later. The expansion of the chronological framework serves Knight's goal of casting a broader-than-usual scientific net. Chemistry, geology, and natural history—omitted from most narratives of the Scientific Revolution because their periods of transformation came after 1687—receive equal billing with physics and astronomy. The chapter on medicine (because it begins earlier and ends later than most) tells a more complete and more coherent story.

The three-century narrative also allows Knight to present the Scientific Revolution as continuous with, rather that sharply distinct from, Middle Ages before and the Enlightenment after.

The narrative in Voyaging in Strange Seas begins with a hurtling recap of science in the Middle Ages and ends with an expansive preview of the Enlightenment. The nine chapters framed by those chronological bookends, the core of the book, are organized thematically. Some focus on scientific disciplines such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, and natural history; others deal with intimately related subjects such as medicine, technology, and cartography; still others explore scientific method, the practice of experimentation, and the relationship between science and religion.

Voyaging in Strange Seas, as a result, covers the same chronological ground multiple times, picking up different intellectual threads, and drawing in different casts of characters, each time. The drawbacks of such an approach—the reader’s difficulty in relating one chapter to another, and the artificial separation it creates between subjects that 17th century scientists saw as interconnected—are mitigated by Knight’s ceaseless efforts knit to the disparate stories together. Each chapter is laced with references to individuals and ideas from earlier chapters, and so each is simultaneously about the topic it’s focused on and the place of that topic in the larger tapestry of early modern science.

The book as a whole reads, as a result, like a tightly woven web of ideas connecting an immense “cast” of individuals, groups, institutions, and ideas. Knight’s prose is never less than clear, but Voyaging in Strange Seas is—because of the sheer quantity of information it presents, and the density of the interconnections between individual elements—a virtually impossible book to skim through, and a demanding one to read closely. The following excerpt, from a chapter on experimental technique (p. 96), is fairly typical:

Robert Boyle's air pump

Demonstrating the air pump became a standard feature of the Royal Society’s entertainment of visiting dignitaries; and air pumps (improved by Dennis Papin, who added a second cylinder) became part of the equipment of itinerant lecturers, famously captured in the 1768 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby that shows a struggling bird in the receiver. To Boyle, by removing the air, the pump left a vacuum in the receiver; but he found himself having to argue against those who believed it was full of aether: notably Hobbes, whose political theory set out in Leviathan (1651) had scandalized contemporaries, but also the English Jesuit Francis Line (1595-1675), whose “funicular hypothesis” involved a skyhook holding up the mercury column.

The issue here is not a lack of explanation -- at this point in the chapter Boyle has already been introduced, technical terms like “receiver” and “aether” defined, and the workings of a mercury-column barometer explained -- but the sheer quantity of information packed into the prose. Taken in isolation, sentences like these are models of how to tell a complex story concisely and efficiently. Taken as a group, in chapter- or book-length quantities, they are exhausting.

Voyaging in Strange Seas is a work of spectacular ambition, executed with great skill. Its scope is broad, its coverage deep, and its writing crystalline. It's an impressive piece of historical writing—a much-needed broadening of the “textbook version” of the Scientific Revolution that draws on a generation’s worth of recent scholarship—but one with no natural audience. It's clearly intended for non-specialist readers, but its pace and density will put off all but those with extraordinary dedication or a specific purpose.

Voyaging in Strange Seas is a chronicle rather than a narrative, authoritatively recounting the full range of significant events from a given era, rather than telling a story with a core set of characters and a clear dramatic arc. The chronicle is a venerable and valid way of writing history but, as the generations of readers who have bounced off Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume History of Civilization know, it can also be a forbidding one. Voyaging in Strange Seas belongs in the history collections of high school, college, and public libraries alike, and in the bookcases of readers looking for a serious, comprehensive introduction to the Scientific Revolution. History buffs looking for an engaging narrative in the vein of Dava Sobel’s Longitude or Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men will, however, need to keep looking.


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