[techbooks] REVIEW: "The Ascent of Science", Brian L. Silver
- BKASCSCI.RVW 990226
"The Ascent of Science", Brian L. Silver, 1998, 0-19-511699-2, U$35.00
%A Brian L. Silver
%C 70 Wynford Drive, Don Mills, Ontario M3C 1J9
%I Oxford University Press
%O U$35.00 212-679-7300 cjp@...
%P 534 p.
%T "The Ascent of Science"
This is a book about science, not about engineering. Since the book
is targeted at the layperson, the intended audience may not grasp this
fact in advance. Science is often perceived as being about artifacts,
rather than ideas, and it is ideas that Silver wants to discuss. In
particular, he is concerned with the ideas that science has presented
that have gone on to have an impact in society and civilization,
usually beyond their original scientific scope and use. It is this
last, therefore, that is the distinctive of the work, and upon which I
feel it must be judged.
In addition, the author limits the range of the work. This is not a
history of science, but an overview of the "good bits." The high
points, to Silver, seem to crop up much more frequently in physics
than anywhere else. Chemistry gets a bit of a mention, but it leans
to the physical side. There is an excursion into biology, and it is
substantial, but not broadly based. There is almost no geoscience nor
pure mathematics. The softer sciences get no mention at all, and the
introduction explicitly rejects any examination of consciousness, the
province of psychology.
The book looks like a great number of essays arranged into ten parts.
Part one appears to look at the scientific method, or methods,
examining first a modern theory against a prior, incorrect, one, and
then a series of approaches to the modern way of scientific research.
Newtonian mechanics starts out part two, but the attempt to use it as
a basis for the Age of Reason falters. Evidence and analysis for the
thesis is not compellingly presented. Indeed, the same chapter that
tries to push for Newton's writings and fame as a starter motor for
the Enlightenment admits that the chattering classes, knowing all
about which scientist was fighting with whom, generally couldn't make
head nor tail of the theories being fought over. In addition, the
final chapter has to report that reason has gone out of fashion (a
statement that will surprise nobody in the days of the "X-Files" and
the New Age movement). The stumbling history of electromagnetism is
postulated, weakly, to be due to the influence of a natural philosophy
in part three. Part four gives a history of atomic theory, but it
almost seems, from the presentation, that this has always been at odds
with the zeitgeist, rather than the formation of it. Starting with
waves and ending in chaos, part five appears to centre on
thermodynamics, but admits that most people really don't understand
it. Apart from the debate over evolution, the biological material
looks primarily at questions still to be answered in part six. Part
seven looks at quantum dynamics and, predictably, just asks questions.
We get cosmology (with a side trip through tectonics) in part eight.
Part nine looks in somewhat unfocussed fashion at the need for the
public to understand the scientific endeavour. The final chapter is a
vague hope for the future.
The foregoing is very negative, and would imply that the book isn't
worth reading. This isn't the case. In respect of his intentions
towards lay readers, Silver has produced a readable, interesting, and
accurate portrayal of some significant landmarks in modern science.
The events, stories, and characters are well chosen and important.
The explanations are good, reviewing not only the concepts themselves,
but also the philosophical implications. (The fairly constant
contrast against religion is understandable, given the opposition
religion has often had against science, but isn't always illuminating,
and may become tiresome.) The second objective, though, of
demonstrating the importance of scientific thought to the development
of philosophy in (generally speaking) western civilization is not
adequately validated by the text.
For those wishing some light science reading, this volume is
acceptable and informative. There is, however, little beyond that.
copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999 BKASCSCI.RVW 990226
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