- A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility
In an April 2005 Globe and Mail article ('No Faith in Science'), Carolyn Abraham describes how certain scientific investigations in America under the Bush administration are being threatened by religiously minded lobbyists who object to what they perceive as morally misguided research supported by public funds. Such an interaction between science and society is not new to the modern age; it is a long and colourful story that reaches back to the birth of science itself. With an eye to illuminating this tale and demonstrating that the history of science is something greater than white-coated chemists analysing test-tubes or physicists scribbling Greek symbols on a blackboard, Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack have coauthored A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility.
All the usual suspects are included in the book: Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Darwin, Einstein, and Oppenheimer. These seminal figures in the history of science are not presented as disembodied intellects who pass ideas from one mind to the next. This approach is refreshing. As in all human activity, the environment in which science is created plays an important role in that creation. A few brief examples from the book illustrate the point. The needs of Roman society ensured that their study of nature focused on practical concerns like surveying roads rather than the philosophy of their Greek predecessors, which tended to be more abstract. Galileo's desire for patronage spurred his astronomical studies, which attracted lucrative interest from the wealthy Medici court. Moreover, mercantile interest went hand in hand with the advancement of the Enlightenment. Closer to our own era, the world wars illustrate in dramatic fashion both the theoretical challenges and the potential of terrible utility for science in the examples of gas warfare and the atomic bomb. Social and political issues were clearly part and parcel of the history of science. While [End Page 165] this has long been known to professional historians and detailed at length in specialized monographs, Ede and Cormack bring this important realization to the general public and student readers alike and in so doing add an aspect to the history of science rarely discussed outside of the academy. While the scope of the book and likely interest of readers necessitated selectivity and brevity of some topics - four of the eleven chapters address twentieth- and twenty-first-century issues - its overall effectiveness is not diminished.
Ede and Cormack have based their fine book on the most current and cutting-edge research in the history of science. Student and professional researchers will be well served by the ample suggestions for further reading, which are helpfully divided into the same chronological chapters as the main text. The diagrams and pictures employed throughout the book are very useful explanatory aids. I found the schematic depictions of Zeno's paradoxes, epicycle motion, Phlogiston combustion, and Mendel's genetics particularly effective. The quality of the illustrations is high: only the picture of Newton stands out for its cartoon-like appearance.
While the theories and works of some philosophers and scientists are more solidly linked to society than are others, Ede and Cormack have done an admirable job of demonstrating how ideas about nature are separated from the society that produced them only at the peril of proper historical understanding. It should be mentioned that in addition to the single-book format under review here, A History of Science in Society is available in two volumes: (1) antiquity to the scientific revolution, and (2) the scientific revolution to the modern age. This is particularly useful for instructors who often break history of science courses along these lines and will ensure that, in whatever form, A History of Science in Society will reach the wide audience it deserves. This is an excellent book that I have used in my own teaching and will continue to use. [End Page 166]
Jeffrey Wigelsworth, University of Calgary