10 Great History of (European) Science Books and more

christie-thonyMy name is Thony Christie and I’m an Englishman who has lived more than half his life in Germany. I have done many diverse things in my life, but if I’m asked for my profession I say that I’m a historian of science. I have been blogging about the history of science at The Renaissance Mathematicus for more than five years now. I also edit Whewell’s Gazette, a weekly links list of Internet histories of science, technology and medicine, on the Whewell’s Ghost blog. Some time back the Pop Science Guy invited me to write a ‘10 Great History of Science Books’ list for his blog, to which I readily agreed. However being a professional procrastinator when it comes to writing anything I put it to one side and never got round to it. About a week ago PSG reminded me of my acceptance of his offer and this time I decided not to procrastinate any longer and finally write that list. On the day that I originally said yes I spontaneously wrote a list of the books I might include in my list, aiming mostly for books for the general reader rather than specialist academic texts and came up with thirteen titles and thought what the fuck “why are we so obsessed with lists of ten this and that?” and decided to stick to thirteen, a good baker’s dozen. As you will see I actually talk about more than thirteen books but then again why the hell not.

proofs-and-refutations1. Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery by Imre Lakatos

My first choice is not strictly a history of science book but when I get asked which one book most influenced me, as an academic, then the answer is very simple, it’s Imre Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations. There is a story behind this choice. I became fascinated by the history of mathematics as a teenager in the 1960s. In the 1970s I lived for a time in Malmö in Southern Sweden. Malmö had an excellent public library with many English language books. Whilst living there I borrowed and read many books from this library and almost simultaneously discovered both the philosophy of mathematics through Stephan Koerner’s excellent The Philosophy of Mathematics and the philosophy of science through Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations. I was equally fascinated by both books and began to speculate if it would be possible to develop a Popperian philosophy of mathematics. A speculation that was strengthened by reading Ernst Gombrich, whose history of art is based on Popper’s philosophy of science. When I returned to England I discovered Lakotos’ Proofs and Refutations, a realisation of my speculations, a Popperian philosophy of mathematics but written on a level that I would never have dreamed possible. The book is based on Lakatos’ second doctoral thesis. The book consists of a series of case studies from the history of maths presented as Socratic dialogues produced by a class of ‘advanced’ students and their teacher trying to solve a given mathematical problem. The paths that the dialogues follow mirror the paths that the actual historical discoveries took. Lakatos says that the dialogues are normative history, whilst the real history takes place in the (very copious) footnotes. The book is an absolutely brilliant tour de force. I would go on to read all of Lakatos’ work on the history and philosophy of science. I took two major principles from Lakatos’ work firstly that the history and philosophy of science are “a specious of Siamese twins somehow joined at the hip, in a well-known (well-known amongst philosophers of science that is!) bon mot Imre Lakatos wrote, “philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science blind” producing a wonderfully Münchhausian definition of the two disciplines and their interdependency. One cannot do history of science without first defining what this thing ‘science’ is that one wishes to investigate historically, a task that definitely belongs to the philosophy of science. On the other hand for the philosopher of science to define ‘science’ he really needs a comprehensive knowledge of how it evolved historically. A classical chicken and egg problem that can only be solved by ‘science’ lifting itself out of the sump of vagueness on its own hair.” Here I’m plagiarising myself! And secondly that scientific discoveries don’t just pop up fully formed like Athena emerging from Zeus’ head but evolve slowly, often over quite long periods of time, sometimes taking major detours or getting stuck for a time in blind allies. You will see theses two lessons reflected in some of my further choices.

never-at-rest2. Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton by Richard S. Westfall

As a historian of science I have always been a major fan of the biography. There have been many biographies written about Isaac Newton but without doubt the best one, and a model for all biographies of scientists, is Richard S. Westfall’s monumental Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Not strictly popular and not so easy to read but if you only read one biography of Newton then let it be this one, it’s worth the effort. If you find the thought of Westfall’s nine hundred academic pages intimidating there is a simpler condensed version The Life of Isaac Newton.



recreating-newton3. Recreating Newton: Newtonian Biography and the Making of the Nineteenth-Century History of Science by Rebekah Higgitt

Sticking with Newton and biography my next choice is Rebekah Higgitt’s Recreating Newton: Newtonian Biography and the Making of the Nineteenth-Century History of Science. It is always good to remember that our knowledge, understanding and interpretation of the past is not static or carved in stone but develops and changes over time. Becky’s (I should say she’s a friend) book is an excellent illustration of this fact. It examines how the popular perception of Newton changed in the nineteenth century under the pens of his various often-competing biographers. Along the way you get a lot of contextual knowledge about nineteenth-century science and history of science.


pandoras-breeches4. Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment by Patricia Fara

Patricia Fara has also written an excellent book on the changing perception of Newton in her Newton: The Making of a Genius, but the book I want to recommend here is her Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment. The history of European science is almost exclusively about dead white males. Patricia Fara’s book tries to redress the balance by presenting biographies of ten women who played important roles in the development of science in the Early Modern period. Although written by a leading historian of science this is a delightfully readable book than can be read with profit and pleasure by the general reader. The general reader who is looking for a general survey of the history of Western science from its beginnings to the present would find what they are looking for in Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History.

jewel-house5. The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution by Deborah Harkness

Another problem with much popular writing on the history of science is that it concentrates almost without exception on the so-called giants, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc., ignoring the lesser figures, who in fact do most of the heavy lifting quietly in the background. A book that presents a much truer picture of the multitudes beavering away to produce science is Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. For once the publisher’s blurb accurately hits the nail on the head, “This book explores the streets, shops, back alleys, and gardens of Elizabethan London, where a boisterous and diverse group of men and women shared a keen interest in the study of nature. These assorted merchants, gardeners, barber-surgeons, midwives, instrument makers, mathematics teachers, engineers, alchemists, and other experimenters Deborah Harkness contends formed a patchwork scientific community whose practices set the stage for the Scientific Revolution”. Beautifully written it is also a delightful and stimulating read.

composition-of-keplers-astronomia-nova6. The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova by James R. Voelkel

Staying in the Early Modern period I have to include something on Johannes Kepler. Kepler is best known for his three laws of planetary motion the first two of which he published in 1609 in his Astronomia Nova. This book is unique in the history of science in that it doesn’t just present a neat version of the two laws and their derivation, as is usual in the physical science, but goes into great detail on the several years that Kepler fought with the data trying to find laws that fit it, including all his error, diversions, blind allies and failed attempts. In his The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, James R. Voelkel examines this strange presentation in great detail with the help of the extensive correspondence between Kepler and David Fabricius, spread over several years, in which Kepler at each stage tries out his new ideas on his sceptical Frisian colleague. This is not intended as a popular book but with a little effort can be read by the layman and illustrates wonderfully the long and weary process Kepler needed to arrive at his laws. It also shows the importance of sources such as correspondence for historical research.

the-rainbow7. The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics by Carl B. Boyer

The very first history of mathematics book that I bought was Carl B. Boyer’s A History of Mathematics and I still have my very well thumbed and somewhat battered copy sitting on my bookshelf, where it gets consulted at regular intervals. It’s the book, in its modernised revised edition, which I recommend to people who ask about a general introduction to the subject. Boyer is also the author of The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics, which documents in detail the attempts made, from antiquity up to the nineteenth century, to explain scientifically (or proto-scientifically) that beautiful but enigmatic phenomenon, the rainbow. This book is a superb documentation of how science often takes two steps forward and one step back, or three steps sideways and sometimes doesn’t move at all. How theories are discovered and then lost, only to be rediscovered centuries later. How scholars almost get it right but screw up on one or other important detail and so on. The book is an excellent antidote to those who naïvely still believe in a Whig triumphalist linear march of progress in the history of science.

8. The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth by Matthew Cobb

I am principally a historian of the mathematical sciences, meaning in the first instance mathematics, physics, astronomy, cartography, etc., but I try not to become too narrow in my outlook and buy and read books about the history of other branches of science technology and medicine. One such book is Matthew Cobb’s The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth. I’m quite happy to admit that I bought this book originally because of the lovely pun in the main title but never regretted for one second having bought it. This is an excellent, beautifully written, easy to read account of seventeenth-century (and beyond) biology from which it is possible to learn an incredible amount in just three hundred fascinating pages. I’m very proud of the fact that a couple of years after I bought and devoured this book, Matthew and I became good Internet friends. I’m looking forward very much to his next book on the history of the discovery of DNA, due out in 2015, I’m certain it will be just as good.

9. Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer by Anthony Grafton

One thing that I plug mercilessly on my blog is the fact that the so-called occult sciences, astrology, alchemy and natural magic, played a very significant role in the evolution of the sciences over the centuries and anybody who really wants to understand that historical evolution ignores them at his or her own peril. One of my very favourite Renaissance figures is Gerolamo Cardano, mathematician, physician, astronomer, astrologer, philosopher, gambler and many other things as well. One of my favourite historians of the Renaissance is the incomparable Anthony Grafton all of whose books are a real pleasure to read; he is a superb writer who wears his scholarship lightly. So it is almost inevitable that one of my recommendations is Grafton’s Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer. It’s excellent, read it! If you are into entertaining books on obscure topics then I heartily recommend Grafton’s The Footnote: A curious History, every academic author should have a copy on his or her bookshelf.

10. On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript by Robert K. Merton

Sticking with obscure topics for the moment, one of the most well known quote in the history of science is Isaac Newton’s, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants”. Many people might even know that the reference is not original to Newton but that he is paraphrasing a concept that goes back to at least the twelfth century CE. The legendary sociologist of science, Robert K. Merton wrote a highly amusing and equally informative history of this quote, On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript a must read for all those who love good history mixed with good intellectual humour. Buy the Post-Italianate Edition! It has a wonderful forward by Umberto Echo.

Philosophical breakfast club11. The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura J. Snyder

Returning to mainstream history of science, I did my apprenticeship as a historian of science working for many years in a research project on the history of formal logic. My special area of responsibility in this project was the logical algebras of the nineteenth century that means George Boole, Stanley Jevons, John Venn et al. No academic discipline lives in a vacuum so my work necessitated studying the general scientific and academic background of the period giving me a fairly wide knowledge of nineteenth century, in particular British, science. Given this background it was a real pleasure for me when I got to read Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World. This book relates the intertwined biographies of William Whewell, John Herschel, Charles Babbage and Richard Jones who met and became friends for life whilst undergraduates at Cambridge University. All four would go on to become intellectual polymath giants who each made extraordinary contributions to the development of a wide range of scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century. Snyder tells their stories in a book that reads like a novel but has all the hallmarks of first class history of science. If you want to know what absolute top level popular history of science writing is then read this book! Laura Snyder also has a new book Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, which I’m very much looking forward to reading, appearing in 2015.

lunar-men12. The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made The Future by Jenny Uglow

A widespread myth in the history of science is the idea of the lone genius, scientists working in isolation to produce brilliant results. Science is very much a co-operative enterprise a fact observable since the Early Modern period in the large number of formal and informal institutions in which scientists met up to discuss their results and exchange views. One of the most fascinating such groups was the Lunar Society of Birmingham a diverse group of friends who would meet once a month at full moon, hence the name, to share their mutual love of science. This group included, amongst others, both of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers, Josiah Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin, the industrialist Matthew Boulton, the scientist and inventor James Watt, the chemist Joseph Priestley and the American scientist and politician Benjamin Franklin. The story of this extraordinary vital and multifaceted group of men has been perfectly captured by Jenny Uglow in her The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made The Future. Exhaustively researched, eruditely written but fully accessible to the general reader this is another model of popular history of science communication.

13. Theories of Visions From Al-Kindi to Kepler by David C. Lindberg

I was very saddened to hear this week of the death of David C. Lindberg; whose writings have greatly influenced my development as a historian of science. His Theories of Visions From Al-Kindi to Kepler is one of my favourite history of science books and an absolute must read for anyone interested in the history of optics. For the general reader I would recommend his The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. This book has rightly become a standard text and as with everything Lindberg wrote, it displays his immense scholarship and command of the subject, whilst at the same time being easily accessible to the reader. For contrasting views and approaches it could be read in parallel with Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History.

[Image Credit: Supplied by Author ]


3 thoughts on “10 Great History of (European) Science Books and more

  1. My education and primary interest is in the earth sciences, although I also have a passion for the history and philosophy of science. Permit me to suggest two additional histories of (European) science that I really enjoyed:

    1. The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists, by Martin J.S. Rudwick

    2. The Highlands Controversy: Constructing Geological Knowledge through Fieldwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by David R. Oldroyd

    These may not be to everyone’s taste — maybe only rock lickers will like them — but they are both very good.


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