Science for Laymen
The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630. By Marie Boas. (Collins, 30s.) HERE is the first volume to appear from a series which the publishers describe as 'the first to attempt in English a detailed survey of the history of modern science,' and as 'designed to be read by the general reader as well as by students.' The occasion is one for sober praise, just because 'the place of science in the modern world has [more strictly, should have] rendered its historical evolution of passionate concern to everyone.' But it is also an occasion for reflect- ing, in general terms about the problems which arise when one presents the results of any historical research to the general public. For, as everyone directly involved is aware—and I hereby declare my own interest, as the editor of another comparable series—the history of scientific thought is, at the moment, something of a publishers' fad: too many series are chasing too few authors. This sellers' market imposes on the scholars who can alone supply a trust-
worthy produce a need for discipline and thought, since they must now present the growth of science to their fellow-men in a way which will awaken in them some feeling for the problems, the passion and the life of the in- tellectual creator.
It is no good disguising the fact that, for a number of years, this task has been performed somewhat indifferently. Recently, the history of science has been an unavoidably introverted sub- ject, too concerned with developing its own critical standards to face properly the further, more exacting, problems of popular exposition. So the general reader has often had to choose between insufficiently digested compendia, which were 'right but repulsive,' and unscholarly but readable collections of scientific legends. By now, however, the pedestrian- but indispensable labours of Tannery, Sarton and their schools have provided a foundation for reliable popu- larisation, and the time has come to sweep all the traditional mythology of science into the limbo where George Washington is still chopping down his father's cherry-tree and Galileo is still climb- ing the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
How is this to be done? How can one present the evolution of scientific thought to the general reader vividly, coherently and interestingly? There are, presumably, two ways in which you can produce a worth-while book: either by writing to satisfy yourself, so that a like- minded reader finds himself caught up in your thoughts and concerns, or by deliberately setting out to make contact with a particular group of readers and organising the book around some chci-sen interest of theirs. Each recipe leads to a book with a definite theme—in the one case, your own questionings; in the other, the con- tinuous thread (intellectual or biographical) into which, so as to keep the reader's interest, you spin the separate fibres of history.
On either recipe, it is hard to keep a good story within set chronological bounds, or to cover a chosen period exhaustively without letting the reader's attention slip. This is some- thing which experience in the field of general history has already confirmed. The most suc- cessful period histories—e.g., the best of the Oxford Histories of England—take good care to guard against these dangers, preventing the material from getting out of hand by imposing a form on it. But in the history of science their example is not easy to follow. The practical problems facing statesmen and monarchs are more local and circumscribed in time than those grand intellectual issues which are the central characters in the development of science. Coper- nicus in the sixteenth century AD necessarily had as much in common, in his central interests, with Ptolemy in the second and Einstein in the twentieth, as he had with his contemporaries Vesalius and Paracelsus. So the principal lines of cleavage in the subject appear to divide it, not into chronological periods, but rather along intellectual or 'problematic' lines.
The editor of the new Collins series, Dr. Rupert Hall, has valiantly chosen the harder task. He has divided all science before 1800 into four successive periods, of which Dr. Boas's volume covers the second; and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are due to be covered in two volumes each, the physical sciences and the biological sciences being discussed separately. Each book is thus supposed to provide a thorough survey of a very broad field. To judge by this first sample, he has not sufficiently ap- preciated the risks he is running as a result. One knows that Marie Boas is a fine, dis- criminating scholar who can deal excitingly with
a topic which closely engages her concern. Thi• volume, however, is a curiously perfunctor effort: there are spasmodic quickenings of in terest, but—especially in the first half—th overall temperature is low. Though she rightl emphasises the central importance of th humanist movement in fifteenth-century Italy fo the reawakening of original natural philosoph in the West, it is only as she nears the familia pastures of the seventeenth century that her pac quickens above a trot. The result will be very useful for university students, but, for other readers, little less dull than comparable books of a generation ago.
What has gone wrong? Most of the defects of the book are those which it shares with an would-be-exhaustive period history: it is far too full of the names and dates of men who we are told are interesting or obscure or delightful to read. Dr. Boas has also felt obliged to include, chapters or paragraphs on too many individual topics, some of which would have been better omitted, instead of being dealt with so scrappily. (it is not only the historian's privilege to be selective: it is also his duty.) Finally, she resists any inclination to indulge in elaborate portrait, painting, even in the case of that 'inescapably foreign' figure Johann Kepler, and passes in silence in her reading-lists over Arthur Koestler's excursions in that direction. (Too many his- torians of science have reacted with a kind of silly jealousy to Koestler's The Sleepwalkers: however infuriating and wrong-headed in places, the book was rich, readable and deserved to sue. ceed. In fact, it was just the sort of thing the general reader enjoys—and can see the defects of —better than the professionals are prepared to admit.) Yet behind these general defects, which were perhaps imposed on the present volume by the general plan of the series, the book is weakened by a deeper, unanalysed conservatism. This shows itself again and again in Dr. Boas's judg' ments. The truth is: she does still at heart believe that serious thought in science begat only with the 'experimental philosophers' of the seventeenth century, and she cannot feel her way happily about the minds of earlier natural philosophers. So, instead of showing us the world as—quite naturally and properly—the fifteenth• century humanists saw it, and making us feel , how hard it was to grope one's way beyond their positions, she has the old trite adjectives I ready to hand to condemn views which she hat not sympathetically expounded : the `excesses, of Cesalpino, the 'obscure and semi-mystic' works of the seventeenth-century alchemists, and so on. She is candid enough about it, declaring that 'In 1450 the scientist was either a classical scholar or dangerously close to a magician.' Yet this is surely not the attitude with which to approach the scientists of any period, if one really wants to see the world through their eyes. In any case, what do all these derogatory phrases —`obscurantist,' mystical,' and so on—really amount to? Unless we are shown (e.g.) what a pre-seventeenth-century chemist had in corn' mon with St. John of the Cross, we 'cannot ac' cept the adjective 'mystical' as exact; and, even if we were convinced that the term was relevant, is it necessarily uncomplimentary?
To sum up: this book is a real, though not a grave, disappointment. It is well produced and factually reliable, and the illustrations are at' tractive, well chosen and unfamiliar. Unfortik nately, as measured by the high standards one would apply in other branches of history, it has not achieved what our present age demands. STEPHEN TOUTMIII