A brief but panoramic account of science from Hippocrates to Crick.
Bynum (History of Medicine Emeritus/University College London; The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction, 2008, etc.) begins with ancient priests, who surveyed land and measured distances to learn about the world, and concludes with modern scientists attempting to explain the Big Bang and the human genome. Stressing that “at any moment of history, the science has been a product of that particular moment,” the author devotes each essaylike chapter to the achievements of a different significant period. In the ancient world, Aristotle tried to make scientific sense of things, and Galen, doctor to the gladiators, diagnosed disease by feeling his patients’ pulses. In the 19th century, British fossil hunters Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell revealed a prehistoric world, and Michael Faraday experimented endlessly with electricity and magnetism. In modern times, scientists have discovered penicillin and other wonder drugs and have counted human genes by using DNA sequencing. In each instance, Bynum offers bright, accessible descriptions of the scientists (the cranky Newton, the contrary Galileo) and the underlying science that earned them a place in this chronology. The author’s conversational style makes his readable history all the more engaging and disguises his considerable scholarly authority. One of the book’s pleasures is to realize the astonishment with which people greeted many of these moments, including the first dissection of human bodies, the introduction of X-rays and Einstein’s thinking about the universe.
Nonscientists especially will applaud Bynum’s lively narrative, which certainly delivers on his opening line: “Science is special.”