HOW THE WORLD WORKS: A Guide to Science's Greatest Discoveries by Boyce Rensberger

HOW THE WORLD WORKS: A Guide to Science's Greatest Discoveries

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With a title as ambitious as any Asimov might coin, one wonders exactly what veteran science writer Rensberger has in mind. Nothing less than defining science in Part 1, listing 24 major advances in science in Part 2, and compiling a dictionary of people and things that figure in Part 2 in Part 3. All this to ""bring the childlike reader up to speed in the major areas of scientific knowledge."" He admits, however, that this is ""not a comprehensive encyclopedia of scientific information."" Fair enough. But caveat emptor. What you get are glosses, in pedestrian prose. The question of what is science is begged. Instead we get this: ""The Greeks were pretty smart, but they did not insist on testability as the sine qua non of a good idea. Science does."" And some stuff on the Real Way science is done (by guess and hunch). And also that science is not technology. Comes Part 2 and we read of advances in no particular chronological, alphabetical or field-of-science order. We open with ""The Big Bang and the Expanding Universe,"" and close with 24, ""The Evolution of Human Beings."" Never mind that some advances seem to be contained in others. (Why, for example, isn't 24 contained in 23, which is ""The Modern Synthesis, Unifying Mendel and Darwin""?) There are numerous advances relating to DNA, to genes and how they work; Newton's Laws; thermodynamics; the nature of the chemical bond. Cell theory and germ theory are all here, appropriately. But no mathematical discoveries: no calculus, no laws of probability, no laws of induction. No nuclear fission or fusion or how stars work, either. And on and on. Still, this could be regarded as Rensberger's personal choice, or choice calculated to play on what an average reader might be interested in or ""need to know."" But to compound all of the above, the details presented and the style are often misleading. Does it really help to describe Darwin as the first ""creation scientist""? And will it serve the reader to learn that both the special and general theories of relativity were propounded in 1905? Hardly. Those interested in alphabetical listings are well advised to turn to the Medawars' From Aristotle to Zoos for pleasant idiosyncracy, or to more orthodox fare such as the Penguin dictionaries for this kind of learning.

Pub Date: March 24th, 1986
Publisher: Morrow