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The introduction to the book "History of Science" by John Gribbin

The book was published by "Aliyat HaGeg Books and Yediot Books". From English: Dafna Levy. Science is one of the greatest achievements (and perhaps the greatest achievement) of the human spirit, and the fact that in most cases progress was indeed made by smart but ordinary people, who followed the work of their predecessors step by step, makes the story more impressive, not less

The cover of the book "History of Science" by John Gribbin
The cover of the book "History of Science" by John Gribbin


The most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the universe is that we are not special. The process began with the composition of Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century, who claimed that the earth is not the center of the universe, and gained momentum after Galileo, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, used a telescope and obtained a decisive insight that the earth is indeed the holiday planet around the sun. In successive waves of astronomical discoveries in the following centuries, astronomers discovered that just as the Earth is an ordinary planet, the Sun is also an ordinary star (one of several hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy), and the Milky Way itself is nothing but an ordinary galaxy (one of hundreds of millions in the visible universe) . At the end of the twentieth century, it was even hypothesized that the universe itself is not the only one of its kind.

And at the same time as all this, the biologists tried to find some kind of evidence for a special "life force" that distinguishes the living matter from the non-living matter, and failed, and then concluded that life is basically nothing but a complex form of chemistry. In a happy coincidence for the historian, one of the events that were turning points at the beginning of the biological investigation of the human body was the publication of the book De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius in 1543, the same year that Copernicus finally published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (on the rotations of the celestial spheres). This coincidence makes the year 1543 a convenient marker for the beginning of the scientific revolution that will first change Europe and then the entire world.

Of course, any choice of date for the beginning of the history of science is arbitrary, and my story is limited both geographically and in terms of the time span it covers. My goal is to outline the development of science in the Western world, from the Renaissance to the end of the twentieth century (approximately). This means leaving aside the achievements of the ancient Greeks, the Chinese as well as the Islamic scientists and philosophers who worked so hard to continue the search for knowledge about our world during the period that Europeans call the "Dark Ages". But this also means a consistent story, with a clear beginning in terms of both space and time, about the development of the world view that is at the base of our understanding of the universe and our place in it today. For it turned out that human life is no different from any other kind of life on earth. As the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace established in the nineteenth century, all that is needed to distinguish humans from amoebas is the process of evolution through natural selection, and lots and lots of time.

All the examples I have mentioned here highlight another feature of the story delivery process. It is natural to describe key events through the work of individuals who left their mark on science - Copernicus, Vesalius, Darwin, Wallace and others, but this does not mean that science progressed as a result of the work of a series of irreplaceable geniuses, geniuses who had a special insight into the way the world works. Geniuses maybe (though not always), but irreplaceable - certainly not. Scientific progress is built step by step, and as the example of Darwin and Wallace shows, when the time is right, two or more may take the next step without knowing each other. The hand of fate or a historical case determines whose name will be remembered as the discoverer of a new phenomenon. What is more important than human genius is the development of technology, and it is not surprising that the beginning of the scientific revolution occurs "simultaneously" with the development of the telescope and the microscope.

I can think of one partial exception to this situation, and that too I would limit more than most historians of science. Isaac Newton was clearly a special case, thanks to the breadth of his scientific achievements, and in particular thanks to the clear way in which he outlined the basic rules by which science should operate. But even Newton relied on his immediate predecessors, and in particular on Galileo Galilei and René Descartes, and in this respect his contribution naturally arose from what happened before him. If not for Newton, it is possible that scientific progress would have been delayed by several decades. But only a few decades. Edmund Halley or Robert Hooke might have discovered the inverse square relationship of the famous law of gravitation; Gottfried Leibniz actually invented calculus completely separately from Newton (and did a better job); And the wave theory of light developed by Christian Huygens, which was extremely successful, was silenced because Newton supported the rival particle theory.

All this will not stop me from telling my version of the history of science in terms of the people involved, including Newton. My selection of certain people to highlight a particular matter is not supposed to be inclusive; And so is the discussion of their personal lives and work. I chose stories that represent the development of science in its historical context. Some of these stories, and the characters involved, may be familiar to the reader; Others (I hope) a little less. But the importance of the people and their lives is that they reflect the society in which they lived, and when I discuss, for example, the way in which the work of a certain scientist resulted from the work of another scientist, I seek to outline the way in which one generation of scientists influenced the generation that followed. Maybe it will look like ignoring the question of how the ball started rolling in the first place - what is the "cause of the reasons". But in this case it is easy to find the first reason - Western science started because the Renaissance happened. And once it started, and gave a boost to technology, it was clear that it would continue to roll out, with new scientific ideas leading to improved technology, and improved technology providing scientists with the means to test new ideas and achieve greater precision. Technology comes first, because machines can be built by trial and error without fully understanding the principles by which they work. But once science and technology came together, progress really took off.

I will leave the debate about why the Renaissance happened when it did and where it did to the historians. If you want a definite date to mark the beginning of the revival of Western Europe, 1453 is a convenient date. In this year the Turks conquered Constantinople (May 29). Many Greek-speaking scholars, who saw where the wind was blowing, had already managed to flee to the West (first to Italy), taking their document archives with them. There, the study of these documents passed into the hands of the Italian humanist movement, which was interested in using the knowledge stored in classical literature to re-establish a civilization based on the foundations that existed before the Middle Ages. This quite neatly ties the rise of modern Europe to the demise of the last vestige of the Roman Empire. But an equally important factor, as many have argued, was the depletion of Europe's population following the Black Plague in the fourteenth century, which caused the survivors to question all the foundations of society, made work more expensive and encouraged the invention of technological devices to replace manpower. And even that is not the whole story. The development of printing using the method of separate letters ("ballet printing") by Johann Gutenberg towards the end of the fifteenth century had a clear effect on the developing science, and discoveries brought to Europe through other technological development - sailing ships that could cross the oceans - changed the face of society.

Setting a date for the end of the Renaissance is no easier than setting a date for its beginning - you can say that it is still going on. A convenient round number is 1700; But from the contemporary point of view, a more successful date may be 1687, the year in which Isaac Newton published his great work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of the Philosophy of Nature) and in the words of the poet Alexander Pope, "All was light."

The claim I seek to prove is that the scientific revolution did not happen in isolation, and was certainly not the main driver of the change, but that science, in many ways (through its influence on technology and our worldview) became the driving force of Western civilization. I want to show how science developed, but the canvas will fall short of doing justice to the full historical background, just as most history books do not do justice to the story of science. It will be too short to even do justice to the whole science here, so if you want to know the full story of key concepts such as quantum theory, evolution through natural selection, or tectonic plates, you will have to look in other books (including my own). My choice of prominent events is inevitably flawed, and therefore somewhat subjective, but I intend to give an idea of ​​the great momentum of science, which carried us from the recognition that the Earth is not at the center of the universe and that humans are "just" animals, to the "Big Bang" theory and to a map Whole of the human genome for only 450 years.

In his book A New Guide to Science (a book very different from anything I could ever hope to write), Isaac Asimov says that the reason for trying to explain the story of science to non-scientists is this:

No one can feel quite at home in the modern world and judge the nature of its problems—and the possible solutions to those problems—unless he has some intelligent idea of ​​where science is headed. Furthermore, exposure to the glorious world of science brings great aesthetic satisfaction, inspiration to youth, fulfillment of the desire to know, and a deeper appreciation of the wonderful possibilities and achievements of the human spirit.

I couldn't have put it better myself. Science is one of the greatest achievements (and perhaps the greatest achievement) of the human spirit, and the fact that in most cases progress was indeed made by smart but ordinary people, who followed the work of their predecessors step by step, makes the story more impressive, not less. Almost all readers of this book, if they were in the right place and at the right time, could have discovered the great discoveries described here. And since the progress of science has not stopped in any way, some of you may be involved in the next step in the story.

John Gribbin

Below we will present excerpts from the first chapter of the 700-page book

28 תגובות

  1. R.H.:

    I said what was on my mind. I think this site has done a good job so far in scientific reporting and I am sorry that parties with personal interests beyond an honest and modest interest in science come in and try to exploit this platform for their own purposes.

  2. sympathetic
    I'm not sure that the problem is that "these are often too busy with research".
    The ones who carry out such articles are usually the media people, who interview or photograph the scientists, so the scientists need to spend about an hour, maybe a little more, and the rest of the work is editing and proofreading the reporters, who are the ones who are supposed to be competent in conveying the level of information to one that the average reader can read.
    Here, in my opinion, the media people encounter a problem, that they do not have a sufficient audience to justify so much work. I believe that my father would have been happy if he had more original articles and interviews with Israeli scientists, if the movement on the site would have made it possible to hire reporters for this purpose, unfortunately I doubt that it will come to that.

    The other factor, which is the one that I think should take up the gauntlet, are the research institutions, which I think have a public interest in passing the knowledge about what is happening inside them to the public, both as normal public relations and for the purpose of attracting students. In my opinion, the extent to which this does happen (various magazines, mostly internal and sometimes even posted here) is really low and this is a big miss by the research institutions. In my opinion, these institutions would do the right thing if they set up one or another portal where written and filmed interviews are conducted with every researcher who agrees to be interviewed (in my experience, admittedly meager, they will agree enough).
    This is mainly a shame in my opinion in institutions where there is a trend towards communication studies, in which you don't even need to invest too many resources, but instead entrust the execution of the articles to the students studying the field.

  3. devil's advocate

    I also agree with you, especially on the issue of generalizations. Currently on the main page of the science website there are two news items about Gribin's book, one news item about "a malfunction in the Soyuz spacecraft" and another news item about the appointment of Prof. Dan Blumberg to the position of assistant vice president and dean for research, none of these news items match my definition of an article based on Academic disciplinary studies. Unfortunately, most of the research that appears on the site is simply a translation of public information on behalf of interested parties or translations of press headlines. It's a shame that it's so hard to find real scientists who will present their research to the public, but these are often too busy with research.

  4. monument,

    Popular science books have a problem: how to convey the excitement in science to the general public? In order to understand the problems that preoccupy scientists, one must study for many years, so it is often difficult to explain the excitement surrounding this or that discovery. A common way to describe the emotional (human) side of science is through the people who created it. Through the description of the lives of the great scientists. Most of the great scientists were not just ordinary people, but had special personalities and special biographies. One of the best known popular science authors Simon Singh specializes in presenting scientific questions through the lives of the people who developed it and does so with great success.

    I completely agree with you. The book is called "History of Science" and as such it comes to represent the history of science. The history of science can be described either through the succession of ideas, a problematic and difficult presentation or through the history of the people who created science. By the way, the "double helix" you mentioned is a unique example because the person who wrote it was one of the partners in the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA, and therefore his story is fascinating. James Watson, the author of the book, is good at describing in the first person, the frustrations, the intrigues, the struggles and the personalities, behind a scientific discovery and his book is unique in this sense. Despite all this, it is not necessary to write advanced studies in order to write a history of science book and it is not necessary to know about innovations in science, but perhaps the opposite. Science as it is today is not the science of two hundred years ago, science also changes and develops as a discipline and it is important to understand this.

  5. jelly,
    I really don't agree with you. The above book belongs to the genre of history books and is about the history of science. Why is it mandatory that "when writing a book about science, it should have some kind of idea beyond the casual description of science."? Is it not possible to simply describe the sequence of events, the acting characters, the motives behind their actions?
    There are lots of similar books from Fermat's Last Theorem to the Longitudinal History of Physics or even Watson's Double Helix which are the history books. In my opinion such books are very interesting and also contribute to the attraction of people to science.

    Guy, what is this crusade? If you have factual allegations against Dr. Weinstein then level them but what are these slanders? Michael Jackson, Britney Spears? What is this nonsense? Do you have some personal interest with her that we need to know about? If not, then tone it down a bit please.

  6. Gali, do you also have a picture with Michael Jackson? Or maybe some story about how Madonna passed by you on the street?
    Because you will make an impression of a human being, what is important then.
    I would also recommend Britney Spears to you, you can correct her a lot in matters of science and history, and best of all, then you can run to tell us about it!

  7. I only came out against generalizations such as "popular writer ***only***"
    or "the articles in science here ***all*** are based"
    Such generalizations are bad. Especially when they are incorrect. Generalizations are far too often wrong.

    Or unfounded information like the first quote in my first response, which is not so clear to me what it is based on.

    Regarding the judgment on the two books: the scientist is also a more "semi-popular" site than "popular".
    The books, on the other hand, are popular. They are really good for attracting children to exact sciences, but they are also very good for just someone who wants to know a little more about what science is interested in, or who has a small affinity for science, even though he would rather be an accountant or an engineer.
    My argument, then, is that it is not certain that it is appropriate to judge a popular book with "semi-popularity" eyes. Just like, as I argued above, a scientist doesn't always like the semi-popular article that came out about his research, or in a better analogy for those who want it, it's maybe like in science they will write a review of articles in science or science magazine.

  8. I'm going to sleep soon.
    thanks Michael.
    You really should read Gribbin's book first and then we'll talk.
    I look at Gribbin's book from the point of view of a historian of science.
    About Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is not exactly a popularizer of science. Dawkins is more of a philosopher: he puts forward a certain thesis in his books. That is why books have value. They are not one layer. When writing a book about science, it should have some idea beyond the casual description of science. Let's say in the physics of the impossible: what idea or philosophy is there? There is nothing there. Just oh… ahem… like this: tomorrow metamaterials will be like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak and will we be able to realize quantum teleportation? And is time travel possible? Will it be possible in so-and-so years and how? It's science fiction that turns it into science. But this is one layer. Dawkins gives the reader a lesson in the philosophy of science. He explains thesis in addition to science.
    This is exactly the difference between books by David Grossman, for example, and the literature of housewives or airplane novels.

  9. Enough!
    I don't agree with everything Gali writes, but there are people here who have cracked the "Gali project" and respond to almost every one of her comments aggressively.
    I think it's ugly and really want it to stop.
    These attacks make me personally avoid criticizing her words even when I have criticism because I don't want to be a party to character assassination.
    In relation to the current article - I would not put Gribbin and Kaku in the same category.
    I wrote the criticism I have about Kaku when I referred to his book on the physics of the impossible.
    I have no criticism of this kind (at least not until this moment) in relation to Gribin.

  10. dear,
    You described yourself perfectly in your description above and especially in the last word you wrote at the end of your comment.
    I recommend that you continue to visit the science site here so that you can keep up to date with what is happening in science and technology in Israel and around the world.
    Good night and happy holidays

  11. Your claim sounded strange, because I remembered seeing his book in the library I use when I was looking for something in QFT. The name of the book was Quantum field theory: a modern introduction
    Since I wasn't sure I was remembering correctly, I looked in the library catalog and found you too
    Strings, conformal fields, and M-theory / Michio Kaku
    Introduction to superstrings and M-theory /Michio Kaku
    Since I don't have access to the academic databases at home, I can't point to his more or less important articles, but not every scientist gets to independently write university textbooks. Certainly not in this area.

    When you turn science, and certainly a field of science that is so abstract into popular science, sometimes you have to leave behind a lot of truths and precisions so that the reader can understand even a little of the general idea.
    For scientists it is difficult to do this, and not to be scientifically accurate, it is difficult to write popularly, and you will not know about them.
    Even so, many of the scientists will not be completely satisfied with the articles that come out of their research at the level that they are published in the popular and semi-popular media.

  12. Some people feel very important when they criticize great and important figures who had some contribution to human culture. Many sin in this.

    When a person tries to buy his world with this, it is already filth.

  13. I don't argue with lawyers. And especially not with devil's advocates.
    His latest book:
    Physics of the impossible
    He talks there about quantum teleportation, time travel, metamaterials and mixes it all up like it's science fiction. And in fact it is not so. And just the name reminds me of Shimon Peres' funny saying from a year ago. During the book week, Peres said something about nanotechnology that made everyone laugh:
    "Nanotechnology existed at the time of Moses, but it had not yet been discovered." Then I took pity on Peres and tried to explain his words by the medieval ruby ​​glass that contains gold colloids at the nano level that do not convert the glass to gold nor to a transparent substance, but to a reddish glass. But quite tired of nonsense. At the presidential conference in October, he already spewed another nonsense about traveling to Mars.
    The articles here in Bidan are reports on scientific studies carried out by scientists in the world and in Israel (preferably always in Israel of course...) and are therefore based on disciplinary studies. If a reporter reports on research conducted by a scientist in Israel at this and that university, then the article is based on research conducted by that scientist. And it's not popular science! but a report on scientific research.

  14. "Kaku hears about the innovations at the university, but he doesn't know deeply about disciplinary studies in one field."

    Sounds a bit excessive to me.
    The professor has at least 3 textbooks on quantum field theory on string theory, M theory and superstrings.
    Even if in recent years he has been a little more busy with popular books and films, it is impossible to take away the pile of articles from him, and certainly not the books I mentioned, which I doubt can be understood before some heavy courses in cluster theory and quantum theory.
    So it's best not to get confused, the guy is a professor of theoretical physics in one of the most advanced and probably also the most difficult fields in science today.

    Also the quote "The scientific articles here are all (!) based on academic disciplinary studies." refuted But I won't elaborate on that.

  15. I agree with Zvi, at least in principle.
    I cannot judge the quality of the book the subject of the article because I have not yet read it.

  16. Lagley,

    Finding a negative review of a book is a difficult thing - usually people who have a negative opinion prefer not to criticize and so it turns out that it is difficult to really evaluate a book because only positive reviews are heard. I am happy with Yes for the criticism you expressed and appreciate you for doing so.

    and others,
    In my opinion, the criticism of Gali is malicious and irrelevant - certainly here, when the correctness of her words cannot be debated.

  17. Nobody cares if I succeed or not.
    But when you write my full name and write "and she's not that successful" they understand that you have a personal account with me from previous personal acquaintances.
    And that makes your response completely ineffective.

  18. Gali Weinstein is not even a popular science writer and she is not that successful either.
    She's like such a musho kaki.

  19. John Gribbin is a popular science writer and he is very successful as a popular science writer.
    He's like such a Michio Kaku. Except Michio Kaku is American and John Gribbin is British.
    They are both doctors and they both know how to write well and understand physics well.
    But they only write popular science!!
    On the occasion of the commemoration of Einstein's Anus Mirabilis in 2005, Gribin, for example, wrote the book in 2005:
    Annus Mirabilis: 1905, Albert Einstein, and the Theory of Relativity
    Gribbin is not familiar with the latest research. He writes popular science books one after the other. And what about academic studies? Does he read disciplinary academic studies in one field?
    Read articles here in Biden - the articles in Biden here are all (!) based on academic disciplinary studies.
    It seems that Gribbin doesn't know any research beyond what he hears here and there.
    It's like kaku. Kaku hears about the innovations at the university, but he is not deeply familiar with disciplinary studies in one field.
    So Kaku wrote his last book and one feels that he does not know, for example, recent research in the field of metamaterials. The chapter there on metamaterials is sensational: oh… ha. So it's good for youth and also for those who read popular science.
    It brings youth to five units in physics. And that is also important! It is important that the youth get closer to science and go for realistic trends. And for that, maybe Kaku's book is important.
    But Gribbin's book disrupts the history of science: it is not history and it is not science either. His other books are popular science. But here it is a chronology of science disguised as a history of science. And so many details that you get a headache.

  20. listen to the waves,

    When she talks about superficiality, unprofessionalism, hoarding of details, shallowness, and superficiality, she surely knows what she's talking about

  21. Lagley,
    It is excellent that it is a popular and superficial book. It is intended for the general public. Such a book creates a thought base for those who have no idea what science is and how it was born. After that, whoever wants to delve into this or that issue will already find the way. I first learned about the world of science and what it has to offer from the encyclopedia "Hadvut al-Haida" and the number of records (in the late eighties), not exactly in-depth science books, but providing initial access to many fields and ideas.

  22. The book is very superficial and you can't see the forest for the trees
    The book is popular, superficial and very unprofessional. He runs a marathon between hashing details and mixing a lot of information in a shallow way. The reader who reads the book does not get an answer to deep questions in the history of science. There is no treatment of problems and issues, but only a casual and mixed description. I would not recommend the book. This is what is called "you catch a lot you don't catch - you catch a little you catch".

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