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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.

Gift Guide: Science Books

My picks for holiday books about science appeared in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. You can see which 2012 releases I suggest for gift giving here.

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.

Review of Crease’s “World in the Balance”

A review I wrote of Robert P. Crease’s new book, World in the Balance, has appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.

A brief excerpt from the beginning of the review:

“The non-scientific mind has the most ridiculous ideas of the precision of laboratory work, and would be much surprised to learn that . . . the bulk of it does not exceed the precision of an upholsterer who comes to measure a window for a pair of curtains.” So wrote the American philosopher and scientist Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914).

Peirce may have been giving the general public more credit than he intended; most people don’t think much about the precision of scientific measurements, let alone question where the standards of measurement have come from in the past or where they are headed today. These topics are addressed by Robert P. Crease’s educational and often entertaining book, World in the Balance. While some readers might be put off by the episodic and occasionally repetitive structure of the book—belying its origin as the author’s columns for Physics World—those who are not will be amply rewarded with a sweeping survey of the history of measurement and the search for universal and absolute standards, from ancient China up to practically yesterday.

The full review can be read here.

“The lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for ‘Masterpiece Theater.’” — Wall Street Journal

Today’s Wall Street Journal says, “Ms. Snyder…shows a full command of the scientific, social and cultural dimensions of the age. In Ms. Snyder’s telling, the lives and ideas of these men come across as fit for ‘Masterpiece Theater.’”

Read the full review here.

In the last lines of a very positive assessment of the book, the reviewer, a physicist, takes issue with two paragraphs in my Epilogue, where I suggest that as a result of the professionalization and specialization in the sciences brought about by the members of the philosophical breakfast club, there arose a greater divide between science and the rest of culture. I claim that scientists today are less able to “express that wonder [in the natural world] to others, even non-specialists” than people like Herschel and Whewell, who wrote important books about science aimed at a general literate audience, in addition to writing and translating poetry about nature.

That still seems obvious to me. Writers of successful popular books who are practicing professional scientists, like Brian Greene, are few and far between. I’d love to hear from other readers of the book on this topic!