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
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
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
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,
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
(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,
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
...in 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
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
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
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
(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
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
Boyle, and Isaac
Newton) marked the death of the old Aristotelian method and modern science
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
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
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
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
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.