Non-Fiction Reviews


The Genesis of Science
The Story of Greek Imagination

(2010) Stephen Bertman, Prometheus, 9.99, pbk, 293 pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14217-9

 

Most of us who have had active careers in science can easily get seduced by the present. Science is continually advancing necessitating research scientists to keep abreast of developments on an on-going basis; science policy advisors have do the same so as to brief policy-makers, planers and so forth, of the implications of the latest research; science teachers have to adapt to continually evolving curricula; and those in monitoring (health, environment etc.) have the here and now to deal with. We rarely get the time, let alone make it, to take a step back and see how it all began. Yet science is fundamental to our modern, technology-based society and so surely it is unarguably important to understand how it arose.

Stephen Bertram has had a fair crack at this and does give an engaging read with The Genesis of Science. Though I am aware of early biological discoveries and misconceptions, as well as early astronomy (I have over the decades used the example of Eratosthenes' estimation of the size of the Earth in my 'bio-astronomy' talk), I was unaware there was much Greek proto-science that I did not know, including that an electric battery was used in Baghdad two millennia ago!

One great aspect to The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination is that it does not confine itself to the (ancient) Greeks. There is an illuminating chapter on proto-science before the Greeks, a couple of chapters on Greek science in the Roman world and then later, as well as on early proto-science in Central America, Stonehenge and ancient China. So The Genesis of Science: The Story of Greek Imagination actually gives us more courses than just the main dish (the ancient Greeks).

The Genesis of Science is undoubtedly a great read and I do commend it. Having said that and please do not let me put you off with this I was a little saddened by the author's parsimony. It really is evident that the author is not a scientist and his actual topic is 'proto-science': 'science' has a very precise meaning and concerns the elucidation of knowledge through the scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation, conclusion and independent verification (or replicability). As such science has only really been around the past couple of centuries and not for millennia, even if some elements of the scientific method can be found in Greek times. Now this may seem trivial (especially to a non-scientist) but it is critically important, for if you do not appreciate this then you cannot truly begin to come to grips with untangling the controversial issues today, be they genetically modified foods, stem cell research, climate change, etc.  Stephen Bertram does (rightly) make the distinction between technology and science, so why could he not between science and proto-science, the latter of which includes trial-and-error? So, while the Greeks did engage in some science using what might be considered valid scientific methodology today (especially in mathematics) some of its 'science' was not strictly science but in fact 'proto-science'. This distinction really is key in the evolution of science and this book is about its early evolution.  The other aspect to this book, that is a giveaway that the author himself is not a scientist, is that there is no proper explanation (albeit briefly) as to how some of the Greek's fascinating discoveries were worked out. The aforementioned Eratosthenes' calculation as to the Earth's circumference is about the only such elucidation of how the deduction was made. Could we not have had a couple of pages on how Aristarchus deduced the sizes of the Sun and Moon? It is, after all, positively cruel to refer a science puzzle to potential scientist readers and then not give the answer! I would also have liked to have seen how the Greeks were placed in the broader sweep of human history and the timeline from the discovery of fire, to the use of writing and mathematical notation, to the Greeks and then the rising of modern scientific method proper. This timeline could have been included in his (rather useful) reference appendix 'The Hellenic Hall of Fame'.  An editorial quibble is the demotion of the Sun, Moon and Earth from proper to common nouns: NB Bertman and Prometheus' copy editor: the Earth is our planet, whereas earth = soil; Moon is our moon and not any of the scores of other moons in our Solar system or even countless more elsewhere; and Sun is our Sol sun, one of many suns in the Milky Way galaxy.)

It is a shame that the author did not go the extra mile and so transform an interesting book about science's early roots into a work that was a more significant analysis. Nonetheless, the author has given us an interesting and informative look at the early germination of what was to flower into real science and it is the sort of book that any science-phile would enjoy, if not cherish, to have on their bookshelves. Commended.

Jonathan Cowie


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