A History of Science in 12 Books

Here are twelve influential books covering the history of science and mathematics. All of them have changed the world in some way:


1: Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 BC). Possibly the most influential mathematics book ever written, and used as a textbook for more than 2,000 years.


2: De rerum natura by Lucretius (c. 50 BC). An Epicurean, atomistic view of the universe, expressed as a lengthy poem.


3: The Vienna Dioscurides (c. 510 AD). Based on earlier Greek works, this illustrated guide to botany continued to have an influence for centuries after it was written.


4: De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1543). The first modern anatomy book.


5: Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632). The brilliant sales pitch for the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun.


6: Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827–1838). A classic work of ornithology.


7: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). The book which started the evolutionary ball rolling.


8: Beilstein’s Handbook of Organic Chemistry (1881). Still (revised, in digital form) the definitive reference work in organic chemistry.


9: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein (1916). An explanation of relativity by the man himself.


10: Éléments de mathématique by “Nicolas Bourbaki” (1935 onwards). A reworking of mathematics which gave us words like “injective.”


11: Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs by Niklaus Wirth (1976). One of the early influential books on structured programming.


12: Introduction to VLSI Systems by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway (1980). The book which revolutionised silicon chip design.

That’s four books of biology, four of other science, two of mathematics, and two of modern IT. I welcome any suggestions for other books I should have included.


No royal road

The great geometer Euclid (according to Proclus) once told King Ptolemy I of Egypt that there was “no royal road to geometry.” Even for the rich and powerful, there is no easy way of absorbing difficult mathematical concepts – just as there is no easy way of becoming a concert-level pianist.

The legendary XKCD gives us a modern take on Euclid’s remark:

Geometry 1900 years ago

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 29 (not to be confused with New Testament Papyrus 29) is a papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus collection, containing the statement of Proposition 5 of Book 2 of Euclid’s Elements, with an accompanying diagram. In modern notation, the proposition is ab + (ab)2/4 = (a+b)2/4. Euclid states the proposition as follows (the first paragraph is on the papyrus):

If a straight line be cut into equal and unequal segments, then the rectangle contained by the unequal segments of the whole together with the square on the straight line between the points of section is equal to the square on the half.

PROOF: For let a straight line AB be cut into equal segments at C and into unequal segments at D; I say that the rectangle contained by AD, DB together with the square on CD is equal to the square on CB.

For let the square CEFB be described on CB, and let BE be joined; through D let DG be drawn parallel to either CE or BF, through H again let KM be drawn parallel to either AB or EF, and again through A let AK be drawn parallel to either CL or BM.

Then, since the complement CH is equal to the complement HF, let DM be added to each; therefore the whole CM is equal to the whole DF.

But CM is equal to AL, since AC is also equal to CB; therefore AL is also equal to DF. Let CH be added to each; therefore the whole AH is equal to the gnomon NOP.

But AH is the rectangle AD, DB, for DH is equal to DB, therefore the gnomon NOP is also equal to the rectangle AD, DB.

Let LG, which is equal to the square on CD, be added to each; therefore the gnomon NOP and LG are equal to the rectangle contained by AD, DB and the square on CD.

But the gnomon NOP and LG are the whole square CEFB, which is described on CB; therefore the rectangle contained by AD, DB together with the square on CD is equal to the square on CB. Therefore etc. Q. E. D.

The papyrus is in Greek capitals; in modern letters it reads like this:

Modern scholars date the fragment to AD 75–125. It is not of great quality, with poor handwriting, spelling errors (μετοξὺ for μεταξὺ, and τετραγώνου for τετραγώνῳ on the last line), and missing labels on the diagram (making it of limited use, and perhaps explaining why it was found in an ancient trash pile). However, unlike the New Testament with its hundreds of manuscripts, there is not much of Euclid before AD 900, which makes this fragment historically very significant. It contains one of the oldest extant Greek mathematical diagrams.

See more here.