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.

Indeed the politics of science, then and now, represents a major theme in the book. For example, those interested in the history of chemistry will find alchemy well represented, as it should be, along with the familiar figures of Boyle, Lavoisier, and Priestley. However, readers also make the acquaintance of lesser-known individuals, such as Marie Paulze (Lavoisier’s wife). Fara recognizes that the Chemical Revolution and the rejection of alchemy are constructs employed by earlier historians to understand chemistry’s evolution. But in Fara’s depiction this new way of thinking is not so much a Gestalt shift as a Gestalt crawl. “There was no key moment,” she writes about the Chemical Revolution. “Change took place gradually” (p. 182). Furthermore, Lavoisier “became an icon of revolutionary chemistry not because he was indubitably right, but because he persuaded influential people that he was” (p. 179).

And here is the political nut of the book. Scientific ideas, it claims, advance not because they are correct; they advance because enough people believe that the ideas are correct. This political dimension echoes in reverse the lament of the 20th-century physicist, Richard Feynman, when he considered the slums of Brazil: we have the scientific knowledge to make these people’s lives better, but we lack enough political will. (And I must arbitrarily digress, because while the reader learns that electromagnetism was the discipline that dominated the 19th century—a somewhat surprising claim—there is no mention of the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of quantum electrodynamics: Feynman.)

But it is too easy to complain about who misses the cut in this book. Fara is to be commended for stepping back—way back—to assess the history of science in its entirety. In her strategy to cover as much as she can, she relies heavily on pictures to prove her points, carefully describing the social context of each illustration, from the meaning of a globe under a table in an 18th-century drawing room to quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s distinctive apparel, demonstrating to the reader that what is happening here is much more than a march toward truth.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of Fara’s book is remarkably Sartonesque, which I consider a good thing. Sarton believed questions that ask whether early science was rational or irrational, art or religion, are futile and that we should occupy ourselves instead with how people identified definite problems and found solutions. Fara follows this sentiment, writing that rather than “worrying about what science is or isn’t, there are more interesting problems to think about,” such as whether or not religion helps or hinders science (p. xiv). Furthermore, being right, she claims, isn’t enough if an idea is to prevail: people must say it is right. And so, in the end, the readers will decide whether or not she is right.

Robert J. Malone is executive director of the History of Science Society and is an associate scholar at the University of Florida.