Ambitious work presenting crucial scientific milestones through the experimental devices that recorded, measured, or otherwise enabled them.
Don’t worry that the history of science will be couched solely in terms of gimmicks and doodads, however. Crump (Solar Eclipse, not reviewed) knows that hardware alone, no matter how ingenious or shockingly simple, can't carry this kind of rendering. Technical details can add intrigue, as in the 1895 example of Wilhelm von Röntgen impulsively thrusting his own hand into the path of an unknown beam (the first X-rays), then marveling in the eerie glow as its skeletal shadow appeared against a backdrop. But what really fascinate here are Crump’s incisive and lively vignettes animating the personalities of scientists who often struggled against long odds. Sure, there’s some math, but it’s confined to real numbers and simple computation. The author’s deftness at capturing the tenor of the times helps make what could otherwise have been a dry cataloguing of events a fairly engaging read, for example, the disdain of the scientific community for rocketeer Wernher von Braun as a mere “engineer” who never gave a second thought to the kinds of horrific war machines his technology might enable. There are a few monumental goofs to consider as well: When Greece's intellectual demigod Aristotle publicly sniffs at the intuitive notion of his predecessor Democritus that matter must be composed of infinitesimal particles, Crump tags it as a single act that deferred any real advancement in a key theoretical branch until the day in 1909, some 2,000 years later, when New Zealander Ernest Rutherford revealed and defined the atomic nucleus. One might quibble with Crump’s decision to structure this in parallel pathways as opposed to a central chronology, which results in an annoying if necessary level of chapter cross-referencing. A companion CD with hyperlinks and a searchable time line would help validate this approach.
A largely satisfying highlight reel suggesting that if you slept through high-school physics, it might well have been the teacher's fault.