My thoughts about recent books

The Seeds of Life

Review of Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jun. 2, 2017 4:38 p.m. ET

The Birth of Wisdom

It wasn’t until recently—the late 1800s—that we knew for sure where babies come from. Laura J. Snyder reviews ‘The Seeds of Life’ by Edward Dolnick.

On an autumn night in 1677, a Dutch civil servant named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek rose from his bed immediately after intercourse with his wife. He rushed to his study, lit a candle and examined a drop of his semen with his microscope. In shock he watched as tiny eels darted this way and that.

Leeuwenhoek was the first to realize that these “little animals”—sperm—existed in the semen of healthy men and were a crucial part of reproduction. But it would be almost 200 years before anyone could answer that most fundamental question: How are babies made? Edward Dolnick, former chief science writer of the Boston Globe, recounts the history of the search for an answer in his entertaining book “The Seeds of Life.”
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The Zoo

Review of Charman’s The Zoo

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 14, 2017 5:10 p.m. ET

A Zoo in Dickensian London

Society ladies and men of science came to visit Tommy the 2-foot tall chimpanzee. All were awed by his resemblance to a human child. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Zoo” by Isobel Charman.

A curious sight greeted passengers boarding the Bristol-to-London coach one autumn day in 1835: occupying one of the seats was a 2-foot tall chimpanzee dressed in a tattered white shirt. His travel companion was Devereux Fuller, the head keeper of the London Zoo, who had just purchased Tommy off a ship that brought him from Gambia. The two had walked, hand in hand, along the quayside to the waiting carriage.

Isobel Charman, a television producer, introduces us to Tommy in “The Zoo,” her sprightly tale of the London Zoo from its conception in 1824 to the death of its longtime president in 1851.
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The Glass Universe

Review of Sobel’s The Glass Universe

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6, 2016 7:04 p.m. ET

The Lady Computers

Williamina Fleming, who had originally been hired by the head of the Harvard Observatory as a maid, devised a classification system of 10,000 stars. Laura J. Snyder reviews “The Glass Universe” by Dava Sobel.

When astronomer John Herschel captured the first glass photograph in 1839—a picture of his father’s 40-foot telescope—he could hardly have imagined that before century’s end stargazers would be able to glimpse on glass the entire firmament. In “The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars,” science writer Dava Sobel recounts the story of a group of remarkable women who read the secrets of the skies on glass photographic plates, discovering new worlds in the heavens while forever altering the scientific world below.

In the 1880s, the Harvard Observatory was led by Edward Charles Pickering, an astronomer focused on photometry: measuring the perceived brightness of stars. Up to this time, Ms. Sobel explains, “brightness, like beauty, was defined in the eye of the beholder.” Pickering aimed to establish a scientific scale for brightness—a project requiring thousands of calculations based on stellar observations.
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The Astronomer and the Witch

Review of Rublack’s The Astronomer and the Witch

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2016 7:24 p.m. ET

Science, Sorcery and Sons

Kepler believed in witches. He probably even wondered about the potions his mother brewed. But when she was accused, he came to her aid.

More than 300 years after Salem’s famous trials, American popular culture remains preoccupied with the supposed witches of 17th-century Massachusetts. But we do not hear much about the women accused of witchcraft across the ocean during the same period in Württemberg, Germany. In “The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother,” Ulinka Rublack, a professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, introduces us to one of these witches, Katharina Kepler, who was tried in Württemberg in 1615-21.

Katharina was the mother of Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that had begun to sweep Europe. In 1609, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, Johannes used the remarkable naked-eye observations of his predecessor Tycho Brahe to discover that the planets orbit the sun in paths that are elliptical—overthrowing the belief in circular orbits that had held since Aristotle’s time and strengthening the arguments for a heliocentric universe. Johannes was a deeply religious Lutheran whose scientific work was imbued with spiritual beliefs. He cast horoscopes, listened to the “music of the spheres” and understood the cosmos to be a living organism possessed of a soul. Like most people of his time, he believed in the existence of witches.
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Review of Secord’s Visions of Science

My review of James Secord’s Visions of Science appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 11th.

Science Books That Made Modernity

By LAURA J. SNYDER

Thomas De Quincey claimed that certain books existed only to teach their readers, while others changed the world by transforming and motivating them. The first he called a “literature of knowledge,” the second, a “literature of power.” In “Visions of Science” James A. Secord, a professor at Cambridge, highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age.

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Review of Dry’s “The Newton Papers”

My review of Sarah Dry’s The Newton Papers is in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.


A Reputation in Constant Motion

It was claimed that Newton’s writings on alchemy and theology were products of mental derangement.

By LAURA J. SNYDER

The Newton Papers

By Sarah Dry 
Oxford, 238 pages, $29.95


In the 1940s, a visitor to the Sir Isaac Newton Library on the campus of the Babson Institute (now Babson College) in Wellesley, Mass., could find herself transported to the front parlor of the house on St. Martin’s Street in London where Newton had lived between 1710 and 1725. Grace Knight Babson, wife of the shrewd investor and millionaire Roger Babson, had purchased the room—including its original pine-paneled walls and carved mantelpiece—and brought the pieces to Massachusetts, where it was reassembled as a tribute to the man who had lived and worked within it.

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Review of Lyon’s “The Society for Useful Knowledge”

My review of Jonathan Lyons’s book, The Society for Useful Knowledge has appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. Subscribers can read the piece here.

A text-only version for non-subscribers:


September 6, 2013

Book Review: ‘The Society for Useful Knowledge’ by Jonathan Lyons

Benjamin Franklin did far more for science than simply fly a kite.

By LAURA J. SNYDER
Benjamin Franklin once led a party of merry picnickers who, with electrified gilt goblets, toasted the international community of scientists studying electricity. The group then slaughtered a turkey with an electrical charge and roasted it with electrical fire. Franklin observed: “Birds killed in this Manner eat uncommonly tender.” Franklin was one of the foremost “electricians” of his day, winning the prestigious Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his theoretical and practical accomplishments in the field. Connections between Franklin’s scientific work and his role in early American politics have been explored in a number of biographies and scholarly studies. In “The Society for Useful Knowledge,” Jonathan Lyons takes a provocative turn: He claims that Franklin’s notion of “useful knowledge”—gleaned from the charter of the Royal Society—spread throughout the colonies and “made possible the Revolution and . . . America’s characteristic political and economic systems.”

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Review of Berlinski’s “The King of Infinite Space”

 

Euclid

Euclid

My review of David Berlinski’s The King of Infinite Space: Euclid and His Elements will be in this weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. Just in time for the Oscars, there’s even a movie tie-in:

“One of the more curious historical revelations of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is that America’s 16th president was obsessed by a Greek mathematician from the fourth century B.C. While traveling from town to town as a young lawyer riding the Eighth Circuit in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln kept a copy of Euclid’s geometrical treatise, “The Elements,” in his saddlebag; his law partner Billy Herndon related that at night Lincoln would lie on the floor reading it by lamplight. Lincoln said he was moved to studyEuclid by his desire to understand what a “demonstration” was, and how it differed from any other kind of argument.”

The entire review can be read here.

 

Review of Three Books on the Birth of Modern Science

Athanasius Kircher’s ‘Mundus Subterraneous’ (1665), shows earth’s ‘central fire’ and underground canals

Athanasius Kircher’s ‘Mundus Subterraneous’ (1665), shows earth’s ‘central fire’ and underground canals

Happy 2013, everyone!

To start off the new year, here’s my latest for the Wall Street Journal: a review of three books that locate the origins of modern scientific practice where we may least expect it—in monks’s cells, magicians’ workshops, and alchemists’ hidden laboratories. Read the review here and in tomorrow’s print edition.

The books are: John Freely’s Before Galileo, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions, and Lawrence Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy.

Review of Arianrhod’s “Seduced by Logic”

My newest review for the Wall Street Journal is out in today’s issue. To see what I had to say about Robyn Arianrhod’s Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution, see here.

Watch out on Saturday for my contribution to the Wall Street Journal’s annual Book Gift Guide. And, coming in December, a longer essay on the birth of modern science in the 17th century.