Top Books of 2012: History of Science

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These are books about the history of science. Unlike the other lists, all of these books are affordable and readable, without needing to know much background knowledge to appreciate them.

  1. Dallal. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. (Yale University Press)
islam-science-and-the-challenge-of-history I recommend this book for anyone interested in the medieval period of science history when Muslim scholars picked up the mantle as the dominant scientists, and for those interested in the conflict between science and religion. The book not only covers the contributions of those Islamic scholars to science and the position of science in modern Islam, it also makes an implicit point (or maybe it was only me who saw this) that those medieval scholars were superior to modern religiously-motivated scientists in that they didn’t try to find religion and Allah through their science – compare that to the rise of Western science, which was largely driven by a want to discover the natural laws that God created. It’s a very interesting contrast, and an important point to keep in mind, especially nowadays that we have these debates with Muslims and Christians who try to twist scientific findings as proof of their deity.

  1. Norton. Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth: A Celebration of Scientific Eccentricity and Self-Experimentation. (Pegasus Books)
smoking-ears-and-screaming-teeth-a-celebration-of-scientific-eccentricity-and-self-experimentation Cheating by putting a 2012 paperback release of a 2011 hardback, but this book is so entertaining that it’s worth circumventing the rules a bit. As an avid fan and promoter of self-experimentation, I enjoyed the numerous (hilarious/absurd/disgusting) tales from my scientific ancestors doing horrific things to themselves in the name of SCIENCE. I recommend this book to anyone considering being a scientist, especially a child looking for an admirable rolemodel.

  1. Brown. The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages. (Basic Books)
0465009506.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_ Another 2012 paperback of an older hardback, but this book deals with one of my biggest pet peeves that I consider it important enough to place here: the very popular fable that the Church of the Dark Ages was anti-science and killed scientific progress (the myth is usually capped off with an equally ridiculous rendition of the Galileo Affair). In fact, science may not have been as active as today, but it certainly made a lot of advancements on the technological side – how do you think the ever-expanding populations were kept fed, for example? Or the new technologies employed in the wars (crusades) of the period? This book concentrates on Pope Sylvester II, but makes a good accompaniment to any general history of science book that deals with this era. I implore anyone who buys into the “Church kept science in the dark” story to at least give this one a spin.

  1. Agar. Science in the 20th Century and Beyond. (Polity)
science-in-the-20th-century-and-beyond Science in antiquity and the medieval period is cool and all, but the most exciting times in science happened in the 20th century. It was in the 20th century that the very best and the very worst of science became readily apparent, from the myriad medical and technological advancements on one side to the horrifically mangled genetic ideologies (eugenics) and weapons of war on the other side. The former outweigh the latter by far of course, and this book is even-handed in its approach to describe the leaps and bounds made by science globally and in every field in the 20th century, highlighting the most important advances – I could nitpick about some choices and omissions, but the book is truly a monumental effort, and a great read for anyone interested in the power and modern history of science.

  1. Cormack & Ede. A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility. (2d ed.; University of Toronto Press)
a-history-of-science-in-society-from-philosophy-to-utility I love this book because I consider its theme to be as important as the history of science itself. Scientific ideas are as much the product of their times and societies as they are the products of experiments and observations, and while this is made clear in all history of science texts, it’s very useful to have a dedicated book for it. If you’re at all interested in the development of science and the origin of scientific ideas and their eventual acceptance/rejection, then this book is for you.

  1. Al-Khalili. Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. (Penguin Books)
Pathfinders-paperback-cover Yet again, a 2012 paperback of an older hardback. Blame it on the publishers, not me. You can blame me for putting another religion+science book, but that complaint would be stupid: the widespread coupling of science with secular scientists is a relatively modern phenomenon in the grand scheme of things (2 centuries vs. 20+). And for a while, science was done predominantly by scholars in the Muslim world (many of who did conduct it secularly, admittedly). If you have no idea about the science that they did and its importance, then get this book: it’s a very good introduction. Then you can move on to book #1 if you wish.

  1. Levenstein. Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat. (University of Chicago Press)
9780226054902 Few people irk me more than those who continuously change the way they eat, following the bullshit “advice” of some dude on TV or in a magazine, advice that can be debunked with basic physiological knowledge and some googling. I blame the gullible and paranoid people, and this book skewers the other side of the equation: the scientists and charlatans who provoke the false hysteria due to a conflict of interest. It’s a great book if you enjoy reading about how easy it is to manipulate people – the same tactics have been used by food scaremongers since the 19th century!

  1. Powers. Inventing Chemistry: Herman Boerhaave and the Reform of the Chemical Arts. (University of Chicago Press)
Inventing-Chemistry_300m Besides an obsession with alchemy, I know little beyond the basics about the history of chemistry, so this book appealed to me. I hadn’t heard of Boerhaave, but his work as described here was pretty awesome: he “invented chemistry” not primarily through discoveries, but through innovative education. He fused chemistry with its scientific roots, thus allowing it to be studied as a scientific discipline rather than a fireworks and colourful bubbling beaker sideshow.

  1. Principe. The Secrets of Alchemy. (University of Chicago Press)
1353986304 If, like me, you have an attraction to the history of alchemy, then this is the best book to have. Alchemy has a strange popular image, and this book puts everything in its place. While alchemy had its fair share of weird mysticism, it was a serious science that encompassed not only chemistry, but also herbalism and associated fields – this is why the very simplistic view of alchemy giving way to chemistry is false: the death of alchemy was a drawn-out process since it involved various fields. Anyway, the book isn’t just a history of alchemy, but also examines how alchemy is viewed in the modern world through its place in the arts. Basically, it’s a one-stop resource for all your alchemy interests.

  1. Black. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. (Expanded ed.; Dialog Press)
war-against-the-weak-eugenics-and-americas-campaign-to-create-a-master-race A bit of a contentious book, but then again eugenics is always a contentious issue. This is an expanded edition of the 2004 version, so counts as a new edition in my books. It basically traces the eugenics movement of the USA (I wonder if it’s taught in schools over there) and its links to other eugenics movements, notably the Nazi one. If this is of interest to you, then get the book. The last chapters on modern eugenics I find to be a bit overstated, but others may disagree.

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