6 February 2016

The Story of Western Science, by Susan Wise Bauer

Posted by Callan Bentley

Story of Western Science_978-0-393-24326-0.inddI have a great book to recommend today – a book that takes a “Great Books” approach to tracking the advance of western science through history. The book is called, straightforwardly, The Story of Western Science. Its author is Susan Wise Bauer, who writes with a confident erudition and a clear, solid style. She surveys key works in the literature that illustrate the development of scientific thought – all of which are chosen not because they were necessarily the “firsts” in the field, i.e. the sorts of things a scientist would cite in a formal academic paper, but instead in many cases, key distillations of big ideas in the advance of science. Newton’s Principia merits attention, but so does Walter Alvarez’s T. Rex and the Crater of Doom.

It is exactly the right size of a book, and each work is evaluated in terms of its historical, social, and scientific context, and she writes about them elegantly, clearly in possession of an understanding solid enough that she can present the arguments, the insights, and the conundrums in clear, straightforward language.

The author has set up a companion website for the book, where excerpts from the great books are posted. This is a resource worth bookmarking – there’s great stuff here for an Honors-flavored historical geology course, of a capstone course for majors. (A quarter of the book is dedicated to geology.) Each chapter ends with a discussion about where to find the source material, the works being discussed.

Never have I experienced so comprehensive a survey written with such an economy of words. It’s an excellent distillation of the development of ideas, firmly pinned to a timeline of history, and flavored with relevant historical / societal context. Highly recommended.