Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Story of Science: A New Book Review

  Update: the book is shipping early!  If you have been waiting to order one, you can go for it!

    I have had the privilege of previewing Susan Wise Bauer's upcoming book, The Story of Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory (Norton, release date May 11, 2015)
over the past several weeks. These have been a few weeks of sheer reading pleasure.  This volume belongs in any home library-- homeschooler, interested lay-reader of the sciences, informed voter, or any person who wants more context for today's media reports about new (or "new again") scientific discoveries regarding our health, the environment, and our world.
     The scope of this new book is vast, covering the development of the scientific method itself, as well as developments in scientific thought from ancient through modern times.  Other collections or books have attempted the same feat; what sets this effort apart, in addition to Bauer's clear, accessible writing style, is her reliance upon primary sources to tell most of the tale.
     Each chapter discusses an important leap in the progress of Western scientific thought, placing the writings of the featured character in the context of their time and place of life as well as of scientific inquiry.  Every chapter concludes with a list of recommendations on how to investigate the source material, including helpful commentary on clarity of translations, where to obtain a free copy when available, readability of versions of the text, inclusion of original artwork where relevant, and, where a reading of the entire selection might not be necessary to grasp the essential point, a guide to what to read from the source material.  To make life easier for the reader, Ms. Bauer has developed a website with hyperlinks to many of the source materials, not only from the well-known Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's History of Animals, but the oft-neglected works of Bacon, Hooke, and Wegener.  Additionally, there are links to more modern authors such as Stephen Jay Gould,  Steven Weinberg, and James Gleick, and their writings which are aimed at more general audiences than technical journal articles.
    It is not necessary to read every primary source referenced in Bauer's walk through scientific history in order to get much out of the book.  I do recommend reading all of Bauer's chapters, as they reinforce the understanding that each discovery owes something to those that came before it-- whether the new direction in thinking builds on past understandings or overturns them.
     This book truly felt like the story of how and why we know what we know.  Dogma was developed, and sometimes refined, but many other times overturned entirely.  The process of science involves unending questioning of that which we sometimes take for granted, and the biggest leaps have come from those who had the courage to ask, "What if . . . what we know about this is wrong?"  This book causes the reader to both appreciate the scientific process and the ability to intelligently question that which we dogmatically hold true-- and to understand how the interfaces among science and society and human nature can sometimes cause confusion and conflict.
    Susan Wise Bauer's The Story of Science: From Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory has obvious applications for particularly rhetoric stage (high school age) homeschooled students of any type-- classical, unschooled, eclectic-- but interest in this work should not be limited to homeschooling families.  This is a book for all adults who are fascinated by the Great Conversation, that linking of minds that extends back to the ancients.  This is a book for anyone who is concerned about making sense out of how the scientists get and evaluate their ideas, whether they are talking about GMO's, global warming, allergies, or signs of life on Mars.  This is a book for anybody who would love to have an accessible, understandable guide to reading excerpts or works from some of the greatest scientific thinkers in Western scientific development, a guide that will place each work in context and point out the best places to read original sources.
    Of course books such as this leave me wanting more.  I'd love to see a second volume, addressing those who had to be left out of this one-- perhaps one addressing mathematics, or non-Western scientific development; the contributions of Indian and Arabic mathematicians are of great importance to our everyday lives, and many modern conveniences we enjoy today were developed not in the West, but in Asia or other parts of the world.  The story of how these discoveries arose, impacted, and became intertwined with those in this volume would make for a fascinating read as well.  In some respects, it might have to be a different book, as I'm not certain how complete the written records are of all of those achievements, whereas this book focuses on the writings of great scientists, but it would be fascinating nonetheless.
     Now I'm off to figure out where this book will fit into our homeschool's high school plans . . . if you decide to get a copy and read it for yourself, please leave your comments here!  I'm very interested in hearing whether others were as captured by this book as I was, and how you either plan to use it in your homeschool or in your life.

Thanks for reading!


PS This page contains affiliate links below-- if you click through to buy the book from Amazon (See link at the bottom of the page), you'll help fund my writing of this blog.  To buy the book without providing anything to me, simply to go and type the title or author into the search box.  I was sent a pre-publication copy of the book to review by Norton, but not provided any actual compensation for writing this review; the opinions expressed here are strictly my own.

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