The Story of Science
From the writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang theory
Susan Wise Bauer
W.W.Norton & Company, New York (USA), 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-24326-0
316 pages, including index & bibliography

Notice that the title of the book is not The History of Science but, rather, The Story of Science. The author tells us why right away in the preface:

This is not a history of science.


So this is a slightly different kind of history. It traces the development of great science writing —the essays and books that have most directly affected and changed the course of scientific investigation. It is intended for the interested and intelligent nonspecialist. It shows science to be a very human pursuit: not an infallible guide to truth, but a deeply personal, sometimes flawed, often misleading, frequently brilliant way of understanding the world.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, pp. XVII-XVIII).

However, that is not the only interesting thing to point out about the title of this book. Notice that, while the book I read is titled The Story of Science, newer editions are more accurately titled The Story of Western Science. After all, the author discusses only the scientific works of our Western civilization which, although undeniably the birthplace of modern science, it is far from the only place where science has been practiced —especially when one considers that the author starts by discussing the work of Hippocrates, Plato and other ancient Greeks who are not necessarily scientists, as we would understand the concept today. The author herself acknowledges that much very early on:

The Greeks studied, and philosophized about, both the presence of the gods and the properties of solid nature. They were curious, not blindly accepting. But their world was not divided into the theological and the material, as ours is. The divine and the natural mingled freely.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 4).

Regardless, the book does provide a very good overview of "the essays and books that have most directly affected and changed the course of scientific investigation" and, along the way, a nice summary of how human knowledge has evolved over the last 2,500 years, roughly. The journey, the way Bauer sees it, begins with Hippocrates:

Hippocrates didn't necessarily disbelieve in Aesculapius's existence, but he was skeptical about the god's role in illness. Instead, he looked to the visible world, the ordered cosmos, for explanations. Diseases were not caused by angry deities, and they did not need to be cured by a benevolent one. Even epilepsy, long held to be a sacred condition inflicted by demons or divine possession, was "no more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause." The only reason to chalk up illness to the will of a god is ignorance: "This notion of its divinity," Hippocrates says tartly, "is kept up by men's inability to comprehend it."

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 6).

To be clear, Hippocrates' methods (centered around the idea of restoring the body's balance by using purges, bleeds, herbs, and other remedies) were quite primitive, but at least it was a step in the right direction. Instead of resorting to divine powers, undescribable forces and mysterious influences, he chose to observe, identify patterns, test possible solutions and see their consequences. It is no surprise, then, that Bauer sees him as the beginning of a new approach to our problems, primitive as it might be.

These ancient Greek proto-scientists studied the physis, which as a concept was also quite innovative:

Phusis, often translated as "nature," encompassed much more than the natural world as we would now think of it. The ordered universe consisted of the earth and men. To study phusis was to study both politics and plants, the soult and the stars. The Greeks inhabited a fluid and unbounded intellectual landscape; speculations about the composition of the sea and sky mingled seamlessly with political philosophy.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 10).

Perhaps, more than "nature", we should translate physis as "cosmos". However, to today's mentality, the cosmos is mainly identified with the celestial objects (and, therefore, the object of study of astronomy). In philosophical terms, though, the cosmos is quite different. It refers to the universe as a single entity. More important, it assumes an order to it.

However, the key thing to bear in mind is that the old Greek thinkers still approached all this without a clear method. They thought about all these issues, but never considered the importance of subjecting any of it to empirical proof. The internal logic consistency of their ideas is all that mattered. So, we could end up with philosophers who provided what appear to be "correct answers" from today's perspective, but we would fool ourselves if we believe that they did so out of some shocking prescience.

The atomists are often celebrated as eerily farsighted and discerning. Actually, they were no more gifted than the monists or pluralists; it just so happened that, like Hippocrates, they accidentally hit on some elements of truth. "These early atomists may seem wonderfully precocious," remarks physicist (and Nobel laureate) Steven Weinberg, "but it does not seem to me very important that the [monists] were 'wrong' and that the atomic theory of Democritus and Leucippus was in some sense 'right'... How far do we progress toward understanding why nature is the way it is if Thales or Democritus tells us that a stone is made of water or atoms, when we still do not know how to calculate its density or hardness or electrical conductivity?"

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 11).

This is perhaps what is so difficult to understand to all those who oppose (or who are "skeptical") of science today. Science is not about arriving at the right answers. As a matter of fact, science does not guarantee that we ever arrive at the right answers. Ever. On the contrary, its approach is quite pragmatic. All it does is offer a methodology that reduces the chances that we will maintain the wrong approach to things and, as a side-effect, increases the chances that we will apply the right approach (or, at the very least, will get closer to it, assuming it even exists). Far from the hubris that its critics see in the science, its approach is full of humility. Instead of stating something with the assurance of someone who is backed up by divine knowledge, scientists prefer to put forward theories (yes, theories!) that can be proven wrong at any given time in the future. Science is not a romantic activity that promises eternal reward, but rather a slow, difficult, painful process to gradually improve our knowledge of how things work.

But, it is two other philosophers who perhaps contributed the most to the origins of science in classical Greece: Plato and Aristotle. In the case of Plato, because his was perhaps the first attempt to provide a theory of everything: the Timaeus, written late in his life, Plato offered his own sketch of the universe and how it works —the first self-consciously big-picture neoscientific treatise, the first known attempt to offer a theory of everything. It is a hybrid workd, begiggning with the origins of the universe at the hands of a divine creator —a divine force, an unknown Craftsman— and then moving from the origins to an explanation of the universe's present function that has no reference to the divine. Plato lived in a world where it was no longer possible to ascribe the rising of rivers and the motions of the moon to the will of gods. Yet he could not imagine a universe that had always been, or a beginning that was not sparked by the divine.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, pp. 12-13).

And then, there is Aristotle. Definitely a step forward:

For Plato, change does not mean progress. Only decay. His natural world is an inferior copy of the Craftsman's original concept, which means that it is an ingerently flawed work of art —like a perfectly written play that inevitably accumulates myriad minor defects as soon as it is staged by real actors, in real costumes, wandering through real scenery. The physical world is always less than it was meant to be, and any change inevitably pulls it further and further ways from the ideal.

But Aristotle, watching a sprout grow into a tree, a cub into a lion, an infant into a man, saw something wlse.

First, he wanted an explanation of the process: How do these changes happen? In what stages does one entity, one being, assume more than one form? What impels the change, and what determines its ending point?

Then, he wanted a reason. Why does a kitten become a cat, a seed a flower? What impels it to begin the long journey of transformation? Why is the state of kittenness, the existence of a seed in itself, not enough?

Today, when the cellular changes of growth are common knowledge, when every kindergarten class sprouts a bean on damp cotton, these questions seem superfluous. But part of the genius of Aristotle (wrongheaded though his conclusions often were) was to ask them. He did not assume that growth and change, as natural processes, were simply to be accepted. It was because they were natural processes that he questioned them; it was because they occurred as part of the natural cycle that he hoped to understand them.

That was science.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, pp. 16-17).

Indeed. It is not surprising that many contemporary sciences trace their steps back to Aristotle. In many cases, he truly was the first thinker to ponder about the different spheres of knowledge from a more detached, more or less objective, definitely more methodic, point of view. Needless to say, as it tends to happen with all pioneers, his work was also full of errors:

This task was complicated by the total lack of Greek terms for such an enterprise. Doing science before the language of science had been created, Aristotle had to make up his own vocabulary, his own terms and titles and divisions, as he went along. In doing so, he invented taxonomy: the science of grouping living things together by their shared characteristics. His most essential division —between bloody and bloodless animals, the red-blooded and the nonsanguinous— still exists today, restated as the separation between vertebrates and invertebrates.

He also lent to later science plenty of whopping errors: spontaneous generation, a spherical universe made up of rotating crystaline shells, and the inheritance of acquired traits (even wounds and blows). But even wrong —sometimes perversely wrong— his theories were always based on his own observations of natural change. He had rescued change from Plato's dust heap and elevated it into the central principle of nature: an engine that would drive scientific study inexorably forward.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 19).

Of course, there were other important proto-scientists in the ancient world (Archimedes, Ptolemy, Pythagoras...), but there is little doubt that Aristotle had a lasting influence in the centuries to come. So much so that Copernicus, the "last ancient astronomer" to Wise Bauer, had to stuggle against plenty of prejudices and dogmatism, precisely because his new vision of the spheres went against the core of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Eighteen hundred years earlier, Aristarchus had proposed a sun-centered universe with a moving earth; Archimedes had used the model for his thought experiment in "The Sand-Reckoner." The idea had never gained much traction. But Copernicus had an advantage over previous Greek heliocentric thinkers: access to centuries' worth of observations. The Ptolemaic system had never worked with complete accuracy; there were small slippages and tiny discrepancies in its predictions. And as more and more data were gathered, over greater and greater spans of years, the slippages became more apparent. As Thomas Kuhn has pointed out, the movement of planets around deferents and epicycles is not unlike the movement of a clock's hands; a clock that loses a second each year will seem to be on time at the end of ten years, or even a hundred, but after a thousand years the error will become obvious.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, pp. 48-49).

After Copernicus, the author starts the second part of the book, dedicated to "the birth of the method". The scientific method, that is. The story begins with Francis Bacon and his Novum Organum. As she explains:

Copernicus's scheme was a century old, but nothing had yet changed. His theory remained an outlier. It made no sense, in terms of Aristotelian physics; he hadn't managed to explain why, if the earth was circling the sun, its motion through the air was imperceptible to people on the earth's surface.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 55).

Bacon's giant leap forward was abandoning deductive reasoning in favor of a new method:

...Bacon had come to believe that deductive reasoning was a dead end that distorted evidence: "Having first determined the question according to his will," he objected, "man then resorts to experience, and bending her to conformity with his placets [expressions of assent], leads her about like a captive in a procession." Instead, he argued, the careful thinker must reason the other way around: starting from specifics and building toward general conclusions, beginning with particular pieces of evidence and working, inductively, toward broader assertions.


In other words, the natural philosopher must first come up with an idea about how the world works: "lighting the candle." Second, he must test the idea against physical reality, against "experience duly ordered" —both observations of the world around him and carefully designed experiments. Only then, as a last step, should he "deduce axioms," coming up with a theory that could be claimed to carry truth.

Hypothesis, experiment, conclusion: Bacon had just traced the outlines of the scientific method.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, pp. 57-58).

Bacon had just planted the seed of a new method using inductive reasoning, which basically turns the old method applied since the ancient Greeks on its head. Needless to say, the new idea was not embraced wholeheartedly right away. It took some time before that seed took hold. Slowly but surely, other fathers of modern science (William Harvey, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton) marked the death of the old Aristotelian method and modern science was born.

In part three of the book, the author turns to geology. Starting with the modest beginnings (Georges-Louis Leclers, Comte de Buffon, James Hutton, Georges Cuvier), she moves onto the big step forward in this field of knowledge (i.e., Charles Lyell and his Principles of Geology). Up until Lyell, geologists had assumed that catastrophe was always the cause of past phenomena. However, he now posited that, while natural catastrophes could definitely lead to geological changes, that was not the sole cause. On the contrary, he was convinced that existing forces could produce similar changes in the lapse of ages.

Underlying all of these discoveries was Lyell's growing conviction that catastrophism was a dead end for geology as a science. If onetime past events were responsible for the current form of the earth, there was no way that the geologist could truly understand the present by exercising reason. The geologist could always haul in a disastrous flood, or a passing giant comet, or some other event that could never be experimentally reproduce, to explain the planet. Geology would remain the study of history, mixing story and interpretation with observation, filled with speculations that could never be sicneitifically proved.

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, p. 130).

Just the same way astronomers had to deal with a religious agenda that opposed heliocentrism on biblical grounds, geologists had to deal with those who refused to accept any evidence that proved the earth to be anything other than 6,000 years old. However, a new method of dating based on the discoveries of Wilhelm Roentgen and Ernest Rutherford was applied by Arthur Holmes to the field of geology, and it became clear that the old assumptions were truly untenable. Along the way, Holmes also developed a theory of plate tectonics and how they work that, later, refined by Alfred Wegener, would give birht to the contemporary theory of continental drift.

The fourth part of the book moves onto the field of biology. Starting with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and his definition of what "living" means when applied to an organism:

...A living body, he mused in his private papers, is naturally occurring, "organized in its parts," and, by its nature, "limited in its duration." Anything that possesses life is "necessarily doomed to lose it, that is, to suffer death." Inorganic materials were immortal; living creatures were, without exception, sentenced to death

(Susan Wise Bauer: The Story of Science, pp. 159-160).

In other words, unlike geology, the new science had no choice but to worry about beginning and ends, as well as all the changes that happen in between. Thus, Lamarck proposed three principles of change that pertains to living creatures: first, the "principle of use and disuse", which includes decay and death in life itself; second, these changes happen over periods of time, and are caused by nature itself, not by anything the creature itself does; and, third, all of this change has a certain direction or logic to it, going from simple to complex, from lesser to greater, from primitive to advanced. Yet, although Lamarck proposed this grand theory, he was unable to explain how the mechanism itself worked. So, he met plenty of opposition to these ideas in his time.

The big leap forward, as we all know, came with Charles Darwin who, roughly at the same time as Alfred Russel Wallace, proposed the theory of evolution based on the concept of natural selection. However, his book, On the Origin of Species, set him on a collision course with the religious-minded. 1

However, as it happened with other scientific leaps, Darwin's was also a grand theory that still needed evidence to back it up. This happened in the subsequent decades. Thus, the work of Gregor Mendel in the world of genetics (which he pretty much founded) would serve as the foundation for the concept of heredity. In the end, the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick already in the 20th century would finish the puzzle. Subsequently, the debate over the importance of the genetic makeup in our own individual life (as well as the far more controversial debate over the existence of a divine entity) has been the object of debate among contemporary scientists and popular figures, such as Richard Dawkins, Edmund O. Wilson and Stepehen Jay Gould.

The final part of the book summarizes the discoveries in the fields of cosmology and physics from Albert Einstein to our days. Starting with the groundbreaking general theory of relativity, Wise Bauer moves onto quantum mechanics and, finally, chaos theory.

All in all, The Story of Science is a highly readable, entertaining summary of the importance of science in our Western culture that also does a pretty decent job at explaining some of the most central discoveries. Nevertheless, as the author warns us in the preface, it is not intended to be a history of science, but rather a quick overview of the main books that contributed to this discipline of knowledge. Along the way, we realize the truth of that old adage according to which all great scientists made their discoveries thanks to the fact that they were "standing on the shoulder of giants".

  1. Notice the pattern. As science became more mature, the conflict with religion also became stronger. In the end, the unsurmountable differences separating both spheres were only overcome by the process of secularization that spread throughout the Western world. This process, however, did not necessarily reach other cultures. More to the point, there is no guarantee that it will not be reversed in the future, not even in our own culture.

Entertainment: 7/10
Content: 7/10