Patricia Mara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History is the most enjoyable science history I have ever read and I have read a few. It is enlivened by her strong opinions that make it clear that more than one of our science heroes were unpleasant people to know. She points out how often a false scientific theory reaches preeminence because of good marketing, good luck or good connections, though in the end, science’s self-correcting ethos of trying to prove everything wrong works in the long run.
Science: A Four Thousand Year History is organized in seven units of seven chapters–a prime number product of prime numbers. Her first chapters is called Sevens and talks about the special properties of seven. It has many scientific, religious, mathematical and cultural points of significance. This brings Mara to one of the central themes of the book, what gets to be science and what is left out. It’s all about classification, isn’t it? The Arts & Sciences? What is art, what is science and who decides? Why is astronomy science and astrology hoodoo?
The answers change over time and one thing she wants readers to understand is that today’s answers may one day sound as wrong headed as yesterday’s alchemists. For a time, Lysenkoism seemed as sensible as Mendelism, until millions starved to death as a result of his dominance of Soviet science. And Mendel never even knew the significance of his discoveries.
Mara takes time to point out the contributions of women to science, and how hard it often was for them to make those contributions in a world where they were considered lesser. Well, where they are still considered lesser. She also brings a perceptive class analysis to how science developed and why some scientists were less successful despite their great achievements while men with lesser accomplishment carried the day for a time.
Scientists (a word she likes to point out did not exist 200 years ago) like to think of their work as free of ideology, with pure motives in pursuit of knowledge for thee sake of knowledge. She will have none of that delusion. Science is not free, it requires patrons, kings, scientific societies, entrepreneurial sponsors, governments, defense departments, pharmaceuticals and agricultural companies. As history progresses, the sponsors may change but they are never disinterested. She makes the connections between science and public and private interests clear, not just today, but in the past.
I love that her book is not organized chronologically, but is thematic. For example, the section Experiments looks at Exploration, Magic, Astronomy, Bodies, Machines, Instruments and Gravity and each of those chapters will cover several topics and advances. It ranges back and forth by idea, not on a strict timeline.
I recommend this book highly. It’s easy to read, with great anecdotes, provocative insights and a personal enthusiasm for science and its history that is evident in every chapter. I love knowing that Mara does not really like Louis Pasteur and thinks Isaac Newton was a bit of an ass, though she doesn’t put it those exact words. She points out that many scientists are often more motivated to prove themselves right and others wrong than in some objective search for truth. She goes a bit far, I think, when she postulates that climate scientists stress the catastrophic consequences of global warming because fear sells. The catastrophic consequences are no less real whatever their motives, but Fara is wedded to the idea that really, there is no objective truth.