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.


The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science: a book review


The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry

I recently read the 3rd (2008) edition of John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science – an excellent, though very brief, survey (it is 114 pages, not including the glossary and index).

Henry tends to see considerable continuity between the “natural magic” of medieval thought and the emerging scientific viewpoint, which was based on experiment and mathematical analysis. Personally, I think that he overstates the case a little. It is interesting that he never mentions Giordano Bruno, who was one of those who held on to the older magical view (then again, Bruno was not a scientist).


Replica of a van Leeuwenhoek microscope (photo: Jeroen Rouwkema)

Henry also puts emphasis on the emerging use of scientific instruments, such as the microscope and the telescope.


Galileo’s sketches of the moon, published in his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610

I was a little disappointed in the discussion of Galileo, which did not seem quite correct, but the main flaw in this book is its brevity. I’m giving it three stars.

* * *
The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry: 3 stars


Marching for Science #7

Interesting summary of the Science March from STAT:

  • Yes, it was a partisan anti-Trump event – “critics of the march who worried that it could turn scientists into an interest group to be isolated and ignored will likely feel their concerns validated after the event.”
  • It was mostly white – “There were [speakers] who were immigrants, trans, gay, Native American, black, Latino, young, and old. … But that audience itself was largely white.”
  • Industry science wasn’t there – “companies that are now marketing their ‘bold’ work in scientific discovery and developing new treatments largely lacked an official presence at the marches.”
  • People had fun – “lots of kids, dogs, and people dressed as dinosaurs. … and plenty of off-rhythm dancing to funk bands.”
  • What comes next is uncertain – “Will the march make a difference? Or will it end up as a historical footnote?”

March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)


Misquotes for Science

It’s a tough call, but the award for silliest statement at the March for Science has to go to the line “Dante said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.” Dante never said anything of the sort, of course – the line is derived from something JFK said (“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality”), derived in turn from a chain of misquotes going back to Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve written before about Dante and Science, but suffice to say that in Dante’s Inferno, the worst regions are actually icy cold, and “neutrals” are not found there:

Please, let’s not have any “alternative facts” about Dante. The climate of the Inferno is important too.


Marching for Science #5

Further to my previous comments on the Science March, the graph below shows the (somewhat dubious) attendance estimates from Wikipedia for various cities (excluding vague counts like “thousands”), compared to the power-law predictor 0.47 D1.49 P0.78, where D is the fraction of the relevant state voting for Clinton last year (from Wikipedia), and P is the city population (also from Wikipedia).

The population P predicts 56% of the variance in turnout (not surprisingly), and D an additional 7%. Both factors were significant (p = 0.000000055 and p = 0.014 respectively). Prediction could probably be improved by using metro area population numbers for the cities, by using metro area election results (rather that state results), and by adding factors indicating the number of other marches in the relevant state (Colorado Springs, for example, was rather overshadowed by Denver) and the presence of universities (Ann Arbor, for example, is a university town). But the basic messages seem to be: Democrat voters do not like Donald Trump and Large cities attract large crowds. It would be interesting to compare the numbers here against other recent political marches which focused on different issues.


Marching for Science #4

Well, we’ve had the long-awaited Science March. It was, as expected, very much an anti-Trump event. Topics on people’s minds included threatened budget cuts, climate change, pesticides, intersectionality, immigration policy, defence policy, and the claim that climate change science had been removed from the EPA web site (it hadn’t).


March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)

Trump’s response to the march was “My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks. … As we do so, we should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.” I’m not sure if the marchers expected any outcome other than that.


March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)

There was the usual set of signs suggesting that peer-reviewed science is “true.” Which is odd, because cold fusion claims passed peer review, along with much other dubious work. Indeed, peer review has known problems. Perhaps, in public debate, we scientists should put more emphasis on replication.