Fara (History and Philosophy of Science/Univ. of Cambridge; Scientists Anonymous: Great Stories of Women in Science, 2007, etc.) aims to correct the romantic notion that science reflects the progress of noble heroes and selfless discoverers.
Instead, writes the author, it is the work of ambitious men—yes, men—out for fame, glory and profit. Fara begins in the Middle East with the Babylonian priests who scanned the night skies for portents of the future, developing star maps, calendars and methods of calculation to be absorbed later by Greeks and Romans. The author covers all the familiar figures, from the pre-Socratic Greeks through Watson and Crick, but she is harsh on the legacies of many of them, except for the occasional woman. Thus Aristarchus, the Greek credited with a pre-Copernican belief that the earth revolved around the sun? He’s not important, says Fara, because nobody believed him. Leonardo’s sketch of a helicopter? Since he never actually built the machine, it doesn’t count. The author describes Newton more in terms of his work in alchemy than his discoveries about the laws of motion, and she denigrates him for his power plays and slighting of others. Snobbery, selfishness and the quest for power characterized members of Britain’s Royal Society, and their counterparts abroad. Fara fares better in her analysis of how Big Science became a boon to governments in the Manhattan Project and the space race, and why developing countries are so eager to join the nuclear club. She also looks at the current backlash against genetic engineering, and the effects of the Green Revolution in the developing world. She concludes that for all that science dominates modern life, it is ever provisional, awaiting the next discovery or corrective.
Less of the warts-and-all style and more straightforward reporting would have made this account more palatable.