A Chronicler of Science
A IIISTOItY is, we are often told, different from a chronicle—different by the measure of the selec- tion, interpretation, judgment which the his- torian applies to the past. The historian, however scrupulously and unromantically, makes some picture; the pure chronicler, if there could be a pure chronicler, would have to be one to whom unrelated facts just, as it were, occurred. If we accept this rather foggy old distinction, can we apply it to the history of science? Here, we might think, there is at least much less room for the historian's interpretative activities. For one thing, judgments of importance seem far more to be given to the historian of science than they are to, say, the political historian; basically, a piece of scientific work is important if it leads to other pieces of scientific work on a sufficiently general scale—thus it was that Mendel's work turned out to be important. Again, because the progress of science depends essentially on the publication of results, the matter of the history..of science seems to be very firmly there, in the form of the books, papers, manuscripts \N hich transmit the scien- tific theories and ideas; whereas in political or economic history, who knows what neglected memoir or undiscovered pipe-roll may, if inter- pretatively regarded, shed new light on old ques- tions?
• Yet if we. look .at histories of science, some . seem interpretative enough, and in not unfamiliar ways. Thus the facts may be presented to give us a picture of the state- of affairs at a certain period, of what questions at that time presented themselves to men, and in what form: thus Butterfield in The Origins of Modern Science. Or a previously neglected or despised period may be rehabilitated, made to play its part in the general story : so, perhaps, Crombie in Augus- tine to Galileo. Or, most ambitiously, the his- torian may seek to present a general picture of the nature of scientific discovery itself, a thesis about what scientists are at: as does Koestler, wearing his interpretation on his title page, in The Sleepwalkers.
Singer's 'Short History' (short only relatively to its subject—there are 516 pages of it) does none of these things, except, to a limited extent, the first, This scholarly, lucid, and helpful book is virtually a chronicle, and none the worse for that. Singer claims, however, that it does contain an interpretation, the shape of which, he sug- gests, is to be grasped from the list of contents, the arrangement of the chapters. This interpreta- tion. however, is minimal : it consists of a picture of science in the West flourishing first in Greece and Alexandria, detaching itself there from philosophy, continuing rather remotely among the Arabs (much fascinating information here), eclipsed in the Middle Ages, reborn in the seven- teenth century, surging on to an ideal of universal deterministic materialism in the nineteenth cen- tury. There is hardly anything about the influence of technology, no large-scale thesis, and very few prejudices, except for a pleasing dislike of the Romans and a certain professional anti-clerical- ism. There is, particularly towards the end, a cer- tain emphasis, very welcome, on biology; and periods are to some extent considered synoptically, and successfully so: Singer's statement of the position at the end of the nineteenth century is genuinely illuminating.
Otherwise, and principally, it is a splendid and impressive collection of facts (though it is a pity that it is not more fully indexed). The scientist who consults it should learn a good bit of history, the non-scientist a certain amount of science, and either of them many out-of-the-way pieces of information. It needed Singer, I will confess, to tell me that the name Ilaroun-al-Raschid' means `Aaron the Upright.