A Past Distilled

Library of Congress

A man pokes his head through the sphere of the sky to discover the universe beyond. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Patricia Fara. Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 408 pp. $34.95 cloth, $18.95 paper.

There is a special thrill in leafing through a book’s index and finding Buzz Aldrin’s name followed by that of Alexander the Great, an unlikely juxtaposition that hints at the breadth of this book. We see in Patricia Fara’s synopsis of science over the millennia a promising trend in the history of science in which mind-aching compendia of who did what yield to stories accessible to the interested reader.

Her book stands in marked contrast to one of the early works that dared to canvass science over the longue durée. George Sarton’s Introduction to the History of Science, written from 1927–1948, required 4,200 pages (weighing in at nearly 16 pounds) to cover the period from Homer to the 14th century. Now, more than 60 years later, a period over which the history of science has matured as a discipline, we are treated to a view of science where centuries are examined in chapters rather than volumes. The promising trend here is not simply that of increased brevity—a welcome entry point for the general reader—but of sheer readability as well. Specialists in the field will likely voice more than a few quibbles about Science: A Four Thousand Year History, but few will deem it dry. Although not as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which examines science with humor, Fara’s book marks an important direction in the discipline: a bona-fide historian of science writing an engaging book for the general reader.

Any work that dares to explore science from the Babylonians to E. O. Wilson will not avoid the charge of being arbitrary. Fara concedes as much, settling on her four millennia as an exercise in symmetry, a temporal structure that begins in the 21st century BCE and speeds through to the 21st century CE. Indeed, symmetry not only describes the book physically—seven sections, divided into seven chapters, many of which are seven pages long—but also the contents itself. Fara argues for a more equal place for women in the history of science, a worthy goal, but one that leads her to create a world in which 19th–century science popularizer Mary Somerville’s name appears and the name of one of the century’s scientific stars, Louis Agassiz, does not. By being arbitrary she is trying to counter the convention that science has been a field in which only men have played. Hers is an uphill battle because the book highlights the political dimension in the history of science, a dimension where being convincing is as important as being right—yet another area in which the male presence has dominated historical works.