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[techbooks] REVIEW: "The Ascent of Science", Brian L. Silver

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8, 1999
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      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
      %D 1998
      %G 0-19-511699-2
      %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

      ====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
      rslade@... rslade@... slade@... p1@...
      My husband and I don't fight. We just work it out through email!-GJS
      http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev or http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~rslade

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