Non-Fiction Reviews

The Oxford History of Science

(2017/2023) Iwan Rys Morus (ed.), Oxford University Press, 12.99, trdpbk, xii + 430pp, ISBN 978-0-192-88399-5


This was first published asThe Oxford Illustrated History of Science back in 2017. As you will guess from the 'Illustrated' this is packed with added artwork: 93 colour illustrations and 46 black & white illustrations. This earlier incarnation is also in a slightly larger format and so cost more (despite half a decade's worth of inflation) at roughly double the price, 25.

This version has all but a couple of the illustrations (diagrams in this case) taken out leaving just the text. While this perhaps leaves a slightly less digestible read, actually the text alone does a good job of recounting a number of the key periods of science's development across the centuries.

The other thing about this book is that it does not have a single author but is a non-fiction anthology of essays on various aspects of the history of science by thirteen historians. The downside of this is that the narrative is episodic rather than providing a seamless read from beginning to end. However, the decided advantage of this approach is that writers with different specialist expertise can be brought to bear on chapters and this enhances the information content. Swings and roundabouts.

The book is divided into two parts. The first looks at the origins of science, beginning with a chapter on science in the ancient Mediterranean world. This is followed by one of science in ancient China from the fifth century BC. The chapter on science in the Christian and Islamic worlds is particularly illuminating as many of us in the west tend to forget the contribution of Islamic science. The irony here being that today religious extremists tend to eschew science: some fundamental Christians (especially it seems in the US) seem to have a problem with things like Darwinian evolution and human-induced (anthropogenic) climate change, while Islamic extremists seem to have an issue with who does science (for example, at the time of writing, the training female scientists in Afghanistan is not allowed by its Taliban rulers).

The first part of the book ends with a couple of chapters on the scientific revolution and the enlightenment.

The book's second part is entitled 'Doing Science' is firmly grounded in post Industrial Revolution science. It begins with a look at the increasing dominance of experimentation before moving on to more focussed exaimiantions of natural science, biology and astronomy. The rise of cosmology (especially its interface with physics and quantum mechanics as well as the tension between the two. This last is explored further in the penultimate chapter 'Theoretical Visions'.

I found the final chapter, 'Communicating Science', a trip down memory lane with its coverage including things like the TV shows Tomorrow's World and David Attenborough's programmes: I watched Attenborough's contributions to children's TV and the first, of his several major series, Life on Earth (1979) was broadcast when I was an undergraduate. So that man has regularly renewed my fascination with the natural world throughout my career.

And there was much in The Oxford History of Science of which I was unaware. For example, with regards to David Attenborough, I did not know that one of his series, Frozen Planet (2011) was sold to some overseas broadcasters without the final programme on climate change (demonstrating how controversial that issue is to some commercial broadcasters' viewers)!

All in all this was a very informative ride. Yes, I am sure that many scientists (let alone SF fans who have a lay interest in science) will know of the bare bones of the ground covered, but this book puts considerable flesh on that and as such a few books like this should be on the bookshelf of any self-respecting scientist. Indeed, they should be on the shelf of any sercon SF fan with a strong penchant for science as this book provides a feel for one half of what Carl Sagan calls science's dance with SF. Indeed SF does get the occasional shout out with references to shows like Doctor Who and The Big Bang Theory.

This book got me thinking and that's praise in itself for any book that engenders thought in its readership surely has to have value? What we really need is a companion book of something like 'how science is done'.  Yes, this book does mention science philosophy but things like Karl Popper and his notion of falsibility, let alone paradigms and paradigm shifts get only the briefest of mentions: blink and you'll miss them. Even the scientific method while getting a few mentions, these too are brief: too brief for my liking. And if you want to find out about the rise of science journals, the not quite commensurate rise of peer review to today's debate about the need for double-blind peer review to prevent unconscious bias, the funding of science or even the increasing number of scientists or science graduates in developed (OECD) nations, then simply forget it.  This is why a companion work on something like 'how science is done' is so desperately needed, if only as a quasi-handbook to provide university science students with more information on a lot of critical stuff that most science courses usually skimp over, let alone provide a feel for the shape of the present-day scientific landscape which is needed for a career using science outside of the confines of academic research: some lecturers do need to get out more as there really is a bigger scientific world out there!

But then the history of science through to today is a BIG topic and you can't have everything, let alone everything in a single volume.

If you do not have a good book on the history of science then this one gives you a fair overview. Importantly so, as the editor's introduction makes clear, as the past 50 years have seen much new evidence as well as fresh examinations of science's roots.


Jonathan Cowie


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