21 January 2016

Check Out a Book: The Invention of Science by David Wootten

The Invention of Science by David WoottonThe discovery: I'm pretty sure I learned about David Wootton's The Invention of Science through a pitch from Harper Books. The description of the book caught my eye because I took a couple of history and philosophy of science courses when I was in graduate school. This book, despite its length, seems like a great match for me, and I'm drawn in by the subtitle A New History of the Scientific Revolution. Here's the publisher's summary:

We live in a world made by science. How and when did this happen? The Invention of Science tells the story of the extraordinary intellectual and cultural revolution that gave birth to modern science, and mounts a major challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of its history.

Before 1492, all significant knowledge was believed to be already available; there was no concept of progress, as people looked to the past, not the future, for understanding. David Wootton argues that the discovery of America demonstrated that new knowledge was possible: indeed, it introduced the very concept of discovery and opened the way to the invention of science.

The first crucial discovery was Tycho Brahe's nova of 1572: proof that there could be change in the heavens. The invention of the telescope in 1608 rendered the old astronomy obsolete. Evangelista Torricelli's experiment with the vacuum in 1643 led directly to the triumph of the experimental method in the Royal Society of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. By 1750, Newtonianism was being celebrated throughout Europe.

This new science did not consist simply of new discoveries or methods. It relied on a new understanding of what knowledge may be, and with this came a fresh language: discovery, progress, fact, experiment, hypothesis, theory, laws of nature. Although almost all these terms existed before 1492, their meanings were radically transformed, and they became tools to think scientifically. Now we all speak this language of science that was invented during the Scientific Revolution.

This revolution had its martyrs (Bruno, Galileo), its heroes (Kepler, Boyle), its propagandists (Voltaire, Diderot), and its patient laborers (Gilbert, Hooke). The new culture led to a new rationalism, killing off alchemy, astrology, and the belief in witchcraft. It also led to the invention of the steam engine and to the first Industrial Revolution. Wootton's landmark work changes our understanding of how this great transformation came about, and of what science is.
Why I want to read The Invention of Science: I'm particularly interested in this book because reviews tell me Wootton believes those of us (including me) who studied Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, and other twentieth-century philosophers of science back in the 1970s and 1980s may not have a true appreciation for the significance of the Scientific Revolution. Because I haven't yet read the book, I'm not sure what the issue is, but I think it likely has to do with the context in which we view, reconstruct, and analyze history. In addition, I wonder how Wootton does or doesn't integrate modern discoveries, technology, and theories (especially in physics) into his discussion of research and its effects on our everyday lives.

Reviews: The reviews have been very mixed. Those written by experts in the field (see The Guardian), point out some of the oddities and contradictions in Wootton's conclusions. On the other hand, Kirkus gave the book a star, but because the reviewer is anonymous, we can't assess his or her background or perspective. Most reviews written by scientists mention that Wootton's arguments against Kuhn, Popper, and Wittgenstein get tiresome and may even have a bitterness to them. I'm looking forward to forming my own opinions.

Final thoughts: The range of reactions to David Wootton's The Invention of Science makes me all the more curious. I'm kind of sorry the book doesn't seem to be available in audio (though I suppose the many footnotes could be problematic in that medium) because I think I'd like to listen to the book, a chapter at a time. I'm going to keep this book on my shelves and hope to work my way through its 770 pages in short chunks. If/when I do, I'll be sure to tell you what I think.

Data: Published by Harper Books on December 8, 2015. ISBN = 9780061759529. Wootton is a professor of history at the University of York (in the UK) and has written about medicine, Galileo, and other topics.


rhapsodyinbooks 1/21/16, 6:54 AM  

We really liked it; I especially love epistemology. I also loved his focus on language. Speaking of which, I don't think he proves Thomas Kuhn "wrong"; he just takes issue with the use of the term "scientific revolution."

Eustacia Tan 1/21/16, 7:00 AM  

The book sounds interesting, although the bitterness is not encouraging me to read it. I look forward to seeing what you think! :D

bermudaonion 1/21/16, 10:29 AM  

I know a young woman who's passion is science so she reads all the science books she can find. I'll have to tell her about this one.

Daryl 1/22/16, 8:42 AM  

i think if i were into this i would do as you plan to and read it bit by bit absorbing it

Majanka Verstraete 1/22/16, 10:27 AM  

This sounds like an intriguing book. It touches upon interesting topics, like why our world is ruled by science.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 1/27/16, 2:42 PM  

I agree -- was hoping to read this in audio. I enjoy science books and find them easier to digest in smaller bites.

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