The Chemical Educator, Vol. 6, No. 2, S1430-4171(01)02473-8, 10.1007/s00897010473a, © 2001 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
Landmarks in Western Science: From Prehistory to the Atomic Age. By Peter Whitfield, 1999. Illustrations. 256 pp, 26.1 ´ 20.5 cm. In North America, Routledge, 29 W. 35th St., New York, NY 10001-2299, ISBN 0415925339. http://www.routledge.com. USA, $35.00; Canada, $50.00. In the UK, British Library, 76 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, email@example.com, http://www.bl.uk; order from Turpin Distribution, Blackhorse Road, Letchworth, Herts SG6 1HN, UK, firstname.lastname@example.org, £25.00, hardcover. ISBN 0-7123-4640-6.
According to Peter Whitfield, author of several books on maps and mapmakers such as The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps (1994), The Mapping of the Heavens (1995), and New Found Lands: Maps in the History of Exploration (1998), our “understanding of nature—as a succession of forms assumed by eternal elements—emerged during the hundred years between 1840 and 1940, when theories of thermodynamics, atomic structure, and the equivalence of matter and energy all took shape, and it stands as arguably the greatest single achievement of human thought.” In this beautiful, coffee-table-sized book he describes the long and complex process of discovery lying behind that achievement, and demonstrates “how man has tried for centuries to build bridges between nature and eternity” (a paraphrase of the King’s advice to Hamlet—Act I, Sc. 2, line 72).
Because this sweeping panorama of the development of science from prehistoric times to the middle of the 20th century deals with so many topics and persons, the coverage of each must necessarily be brief, as Whitfield readily admits. However, a much more detailed treatment would have resulted in a quite different and less accessible book than the one that he had in mind and that he has successfully produced. Although there are numerous comprehensive histories of individual sciences and technologies, general histories of science presupposing no specialized knowledge on the part of the reader are extremely rare or nonexistent. In Whitfield’s words, “My only excuse for writing so briefly is that I had searched for years for a book like this—for an outline of scientific history—and could never find one.”
During the last two centuries, science has become defined by its methodology (the widely acclaimed “scientific method”); its critical examination of the material world; its language of quantitative measurement, experiment, and deduction; and its formulation of general laws from specific cases. However, during earlier millennia, in different countries and cultures, it was defined not by its method but by its content—it sought to construct a set of beliefs about nature and its workings—what came to be known as “natural philosophy.” Thus Whitfield regards the history of science as an inclusive discipline that is central to man’s entire intellectual history. He proceeds not by searching the past for anticipations of modern scientific ideas (the so-called “whiggish” approach to history) but by adopting the model of science as answering questions about the world and man’s place in it, and trying to find out how these questions were answered in the past. Although the way many of these questions were answered in the past would now be seen as religious, mythical, or poetic, these answers are nevertheless part of the history of science, and Whitfield does not neglect them. Accordingly, he discusses philosophy and religion as often as what we would strictly consider science, because knowledge has never existed in a vacuum and because past scientists have frequently sought to place their work in a philosophical framework. He also cogently argues, with many well-chosen examples, that “the history of science, like that of art, is not a simple progression from lower to higher, but a sequence of responses to the world, conditioned by historical circumstances.”
Each of the book’s eight chapters is prefaced by a pertinent quotation. Some idea of its scope and breadth can be gleaned from the chapter titles: (1) “The Origins of Recorded Science” (20 pp, the shortest chapter); (2) “The Classical Achievement” (22 pp); (3) “Science in Religious Cultures: Part 1. “The Islamic Masters” (17 pp), Part 2. “Christian Pupils” (23 pp); (4) “The Problem of the Renaissance” (30 pp); (5) “Science Reborn” (40 pp); (6) “Eighteenth-Century Interlude” (22 pp); (7) “The Machine Age” (43 pp, the longest chapter); and (8) “Twentieth-Century Science: the New Labyrinth” (21 pp). A section of Chapter 7, titled “The Chemical Revolution” (pp 184–191), deals briefly with the contributions of Black, Cavendish, Priestley, Lavoisier, Dalton, Proust, Davy, Volta, Gay-Lussac, Avogadro, Berzelius, Cannizzaro, Bunsen, Kirchhoff, and Mendeleev, but chemistry is treated in other parts of the book as well.
A fascinating array of illustrations, both familiar and unfamiliar, from a variety of sources, but most from The British Library (the book’s publisher), complement the text. Of the 181 unnumbered figures, 25 are in full color and 26 are full page. Among these are portraits of scientific luminaries, their handwritten manuscripts, maps, woodcuts, paintings, title pages, cartoons, instruments, diagrams, and photographs of objects as small as microorganisms and as large as galaxies.
A select 3-page bibliography, divided into eight sections and concentrating on classical science, cites 74 books from 1935 to 1997, and a 6-page (2 columns per page) index facilitates location of material. This relatively inexpensive but well-researched volume, as much a work of art as of impressive scholarship, clearly and succinctly presents the experiments, inventions, speculations, and theories of the great thinkers of each age with a wide range of relevant illustrations from ancient, medieval, renaissance, and modern sources. It makes an ideal gift for the general reader interested in a short but authoritative and lavishly illustrated introduction to science, its most significant achievements, its most important practitioners, and its evolution through the ages.