Saturday, July 27, 2013

Science - A Four Thousand Year History

[Author: Patricia Fara; Publisher: Oxford University Press; Paperback: 512 pages ]
First I will let the author Patricia Fara  to introduce her book.
(Play the embedded video below. In case of any problem view it on the YouTube site)

This book:
  • Does not portray scientists and inventors as ideal heroes but as  real people who needed to earn their living, who made mistakes, who trampled down their rivals, or even sometimes got bored and did something else.
  • Argues that for a scientific idea to prevail it being right is not always enough. People should accept the fact that the idea is right.
  • Challenges the notion of European superiority in science,  by showing how science has been built up from knowledge and skills developed in other parts of the world like China and Islamic world.
  • Instead of focusing on  abstract theories proposed and esoteric experiments conducted by scientists , it explains how science belongs to the real world of war, politics, and business.
  • Describes the works of many individuals who were not scientists in conventional sense, but who developed a variety of skills - navigating by the stars, smelting ores, preparing herbal medicines, building ships, designing cannon - the contributed to the global scientific enterprises of today.
  • Explains why the following questions are important and suggests ways of tackling them:
    • Does religion inhibit or encourage science?
    • Are alchemy and magic completely divorced from science?
    • Were there really so few women or have historians the picture by telling too many exciting adventure stories about intrepid men exploring the female nature of world?
    • Is it possible to have different types of science that are all valid?
    • If there were indeed different sciences in different places, then how are they related to each other and modern science?
  • Investigates the financial interests, imperial ambitions, and academic enterprises that made science global.
  • Shows that what counts as a scientific fact depends not only on the natural world but also on who is doing research and where and when.
  • Argues that scientific knowledge as it travels from one environment to another, is constantly adapted and absorbed in different ways and such transformation is still continuing.
  • Challenges assumptions that appear natural yet have been created artificially - it aims to provoke thought and argument, not just provide information.
  • Looks at past in order to find out how we've arrived at the present in order to improve the future.
The book has seven parts each consisting of seven short (8-10 pages) chapters. Discussions are well supported by illustrations, anecdotes. Author's sense of humor and sarcasm.also surfaces at several places.

One drawback in this book is , barring a few stray references here and their the contribution of  India towards the development of science is not given due credit. In fact decimal arithmetic and the concept of zero was  discovered in India before it spread elsewhere.

Though the readers looking for something more technical will be disappointed, overall this book is quite a light and entertaining read on the sociological history of science for a layman.

Key Points from the Book

Part I: Origins
Key Points : Science's origin is traced to ancient Babylonia & Greece. Ideas and discoveries pertained to projects like finding auspicious time for religious festivals, winning wars, vindicating biblical prophecies, divining the future, explaining the cosmos. Science's very foundation lie in techniques and concepts now often designated as magical or pseudo-scientific.
Chapter Titles : Sevens, Babylon, Heroes, Cosmos, Life, Matter, Technology

Part II: Interactions
Key Points: What counts as science depends on where and when you are looking. Information, skills and objects constantly travel from one place to another, gets passed on through generations and get adapted to local needs and taste. Scientific knowledge resulted from many centuries of communications and interactions between different peoples and places especially China, the Islamic world and the mediaeval  Europe.

Chapter Titles: Eurocentrism, China, Islam, Scholarship, Europe, Aristotle, Alchemy

Part III: Experiments

Key Points: Experimental approach towards the world that characterizes modern science developed only gradually and intermittently. Many innovations arose from reformulating traditional expertise rather than from inspired insights. Ancient ideas coexisted with ones now belonging to modern science. For e.g. coexistence of  -  both Aristotle's theory and Copernican theory of the Universe; magic, alchemy and mathematics.

Chapter Titles: Exploration, Magic, Astronomy, Bodies, Machines, Instruments, Gravity

Part IV: Institutions
 Key Points: Science is an integral component of the society, interwoven with industry, business, warfare, government, and medicine. Eighteenth century was the vital transition phase from private experiments of a select few who were wealthy to the public laboratories, state funding of institutions and industrialization. Institutions though lacking the charisma of heroics of individual discoverers and inventors were vital for advertising scientific achievements and for attracting financial backing for research projects.

Chapter Titles: Societies, Systems, Careers, Industries, Revolutions, Rationality, Disciplines

Part V: Laws
 Key Points: The nineteenth-century scientists' proposed  laws governing human as well as physical world  arrived through supposedly objective reasoning and precise recording of  facts as detached observers. But personal biases and subjective assessments of recorded results were not uncommon among these scientists. The viewpoint of German Romantic philosophers of this era who stressed a unified cosmos in which human beings are integrated within natural world resonates more with modern environmental attitudes.

Chapter Titles: Progress, Globalization, Objectivity, God, Evolution, Power, Time

Part VI: Invisibles 
Key Points: Despite development of increasingly precise instruments in the nineteenth and twentieth century it remained impossible for the atomic scientists to know everything about every natural phenomena  both theoretically and practically due to the uncertainty permeating in every aspect of the Universe. Many politically and commercially motivated research programs claiming to further science and improve humanity, launched triggered deep ethical reservations.

Chapter Titles: Life, Disease, Rays, Particles, Genes, Chemicals, Uncertainties

Part VII:
Key Points:  Modern scientists know much, much more than the ancient Babylonians about the structure of the Universe and mechanisms of the living organisms. But they are still unable to answer some of the basic questions about human existence asked by the people several thousand years ago.Massive investments in science, technology, and medicine yielded great achievements. Yet these achievements are like a double-edged sword. Political decisions needs to be made about how to take advantage of scientific discoveries.

Chapter Titles: Warfare, Heredity, Cosmology, Information, Rivalry, Environment, Futures


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