Cambridge historian of science Patricia Fara has a new book out from OUP called Science: A Four Thousand Year History. I’ve not read it but have had a chance to flip through a copy in my local bookshop. It is one of those history books arranged according to themes rather than a narrative. I think it is hard to make this work, but Fara may surprise me. Certainly, it lends her book an academic quality when she is clearly trying to reach out beyond university walls. I think that general readers do want to read a story, even in the history of science, and if we are to get them to listen to us, we have to provide one.
On a positive note, Fara attacks the traditional positivist story of scientific progress. She seeks to show that science is dependent on the society that hosts it rather than the individual genius of the ‘great scientists’. The book’s title promises us 4,000 years and, sure enough, we get the Babylonians from about 2000BC, ancient Greeks and then quite a big gap. But as a specialist in medieval science, I’m going to find any treatment of the Middle Ages in a general history of science to be inadequate (with the sole exception of the textbook Science and Technology in World History).
One thing did catch my eye. In her acknowledgements, Fara mentions a symposium back in 1991 devoted to the Big Picture in the history of science. The idea of the symposium was to try to rein back the increased level of specialisation in the field. In this respect it failed, but it did give birth to some classic papers and, eventually, Fara’s new book.
One of the papers (they were collected in a special issue of the British Journal for the History of Science in 1993) was presented by Andrew Cunningham who advised me at Cambridge for my PhD. It was called ‘Decentring the Big Picture’ and argued that the scientific revolution did not happen in the seventeenth century as commonly supposed. Instead, Cunningham claimed that modern science was born in the nineteenth century. I name-checked him in the conclusion of God’s Philosophers because I find his ideas very convincing. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say they form an important part of my own thinking. It still seems surprising that the same symposium should crop up in two history of science books released in the same summer seventeen years later. Sadly, I would suggest part of the reason is that the field has not moved on all that far since then.
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