Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)

 

 

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki was one of the oldest (born 1922, died 2015) still-working and most respected manga creators in Japan.  Though he is best known for children’s horror comics such as GeGeGe no Kitaro, Mizuki also has written extensively for adults.  This is the third volume of his personal history of Japan.

Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

The first half of the volume covers the last bit of World War Two from the Japanese perspective, and Mizuki’s personal experiences as an infantry grunt in Papua New Guinea.  After the failure of Japan’s invasion of India, and the successes of the Allies in the Pacific War, it is clear that the war had gone sour for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, but Japan’s military leadership still believed they could pull a victory out of these difficult conditions.

On the ground, the military tried to keep up troop morale by emphasizing the idea of a “noble death”, taking as many Allies with you as possible rather than surrender or retreat.  Mizuki survived by mere chance when his unit was ordered into a suicidal charge.  He and the other survivors were considered an embarrassment to the brass, and their ill treatment became fictionalized as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I previously reviewed.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Mizuki survived even the worst, developing malaria and losing an arm.

Despite his condition, Mizuki was not repatriated to Japan until 1947, now under American occupation.  General Douglas MacArthur and GHQ wanted to reform Japan and get it back on its feet, which among other things meant giving it a new constitution that prevented it from ever again going to war.  New freedoms were the order of the day, until the occupiers realized what people wanted to do with those freedoms and began restricting them again.

Over a decade of war and its privations had ruined Japan’s economy, and all the returning soldiers didn’t help.  As a disabled veteran, Mizuki was worse off than many others.  Personal tragedy struck when his brother was imprisoned; the same deeds that had made him a war hero to the Japanese made him a war criminal to the Americans.

The Red Menace and the Korean War finally were the cause of Japan’s economy beginning to grow again as the Allied forces used it as their staging ground and pumped millions in aid into the area.  Meanwhile, Mizuki had gone back to art school and become a kamishibai artist.  (These were one-man shows where an entertainer would show pictures and tell stories to an audience, selling candy and snacks.)   The advent of regular television was swiftly killing off the old ways, however….

The history is narrated by Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man), one of Mizuki’s famous creations (joined by cameos of his fellow yokai monsters.)  It’s mostly a visual convention as he does not act in his usual character.  The art varies from cartoony to photo-realistic, sometimes on the same page, depending on the desired effect.

This is powerful stuff, depicting the horrors of war and occupation, and a few brief moments of peace and joy wrested from their  midst.  There’s some nudity, and mentions of rape and prostitution (nothing about Mizuki’s own sex life–it’s possible he simply didn’t have any to speak of in this period.)  I would suggest it to no younger than senior high students, and even then advise caution.

There’s an introduction by manga scholar Frederik L. Shodt, and end notes explaining who many of the historical figures are, and other useful details.

Despite its disturbing nature, this will be a valuable volume for history buffs and those who want more information on the decade or so covered in this book. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right

Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Flag

This is an autobiography of Claire Conner, daughter of Stillwell J. Conner, one of the first members of the John Birch Society and one of its most fierce advocates.  In it, she shares the history of her family’s involvement with the notorious right-wing organization, and her personal journey from loyal but naive supporter of her parents’ cause through skepticism and eventually to rejection.

The John Birch Society, for those who may be unfamiliar, was founded in the 1950s by candy entrepreneur Robert Welch to fight the overwhelming menace of the  international Communist conspiracy.  It was named after a former missionary murdered by the Chinese Communists under murky circumstances, and stood against all forms of Communism and what its members believed to be Communist fronts.  The UN?  Communist plot.  Ending racial segregation?  Communist plot.  Being anti-Communist but not in the same way as the John Birch Society?   Communist plot.

This is a sad story in many ways.  According to Ms. Conner’s account, her parents’ fanaticism blinded them to the damage they were doing to their family relationships.  It also blinded them to the flaws in those they allied with, be it Holocaust deniers, violent criminals or just political opportunists.   She recalls several instances of people being stuffed down her father’s memory hole rather than have him admit he was ever wrong about them.

The Conners also seemed never to notice that the dire predictions of a Communist takeover in four, five years tops, never came true, never came close to coming true.   The JBS never admitted that previous predictions were wrong, just kept doomsaying to keep the troops in line and the money flowing.

A particularly telling story is that Ms. Conner’s parents, despite finding thousands of dollars each year to spend on the Society’s cause, told her that they could not spare one penny for her college education and she would have to pay for it on her own.  Then when she won a generous scholarship, forced her to turn it down as they had already picked a more expensive college for her to go to.  She reports that her father exploded with rage when asked why, if Claire had to pay for her own education, she couldn’t choose her own school.

Ms. Conner also discusses her involvement with the pro-life movement, originally stemming from her personal experience and her religious convictions, and how it was co-opted by political opportunists who didn’t actually care about the children, just about enraging their donor base into giving more money.

The book also discusses how parts of the JBS ethos are still alive and well in today’s Tea Party and other right-wing groups.  The John Birch Society itself may be a tiny shell of what it once was, but rabid hatred of big government , racism and a fear of the Left still linger.

There are many footnotes, and a complete index, but no illustrations.

I highly recommend this book to history buffs, those curious about right-wing politics, and those interested in biography.

 

Book Review: America In So Many Words

Book Review: America In So Many Words by Allen Metcalf & David K. Barnhart

America

American English is its own animal, with a vocabulary that marks it out from British English.  This volume traces American history through the words that have been important to or invented by Americans.  It’s set in roughly chronological order, from “canoe” (1555) through “gerrymander” (1812) to “millennium bug” (1998.)  The authors admit to a certain amount of fudging, with some words discussed in the year they were invented, others when they became common and some when their usage changed.

Most of the entries are entertaining, full of useful or exciting facts.  Some words’ origins may be very familiar to educated readers, while others are obscure.  The indexes in the back are both alphabetical and chronolgical for easier searching.  The illustrations are somewhat sparse.

This is a good book for both the American history student and the lover of words.

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy

George

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.

The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)

There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.

One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.

Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.

After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.

Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.

The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.

I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.

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