James Hannam: Historian of Science and Religion
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A Brief History of Popular Science: Explaining the World through the Ages
This article is based on a chapter that originally appeared in Successful Science Communication, edited by David Bennett and Richard Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
he history of science communication is the story of how scientific practitioners have attempted both to educate the public and to project a positive image of themselves. They have especially sought to justify their activities in terms of what the public think to be useful or interesting. This means that the picture of science that was presented to the outside world didn't always accord with how science was actually practiced. This article provides a short history of the ways that scientists have tried to publicise what they do and deal with both a suspicious and supportive public.
Science as Status: the Ancient Greeks
Nobody knows how the earliest Greek philosophers told the public about their ideas. Legend portrays them as disinterested sages thinking great thoughts without a care in the world. Thales of Miletus (c. 620BC – c. 546BC) supposedly fell down a well because he had been looking up at the stars. But it seems likely that they valued the status that philosophy bestowed on them and actively tried to enhance it by disseminating their theories.
Later generations of Greek philosophers needed to earn a living. Plato (429BC – 347BC) set up his own school called the Academy. He also wrote literary dialogues to spread his ideas, one of which, the Timaeus, is the earliest complete work of Greek natural philosophy that we possess. The polish that Plato applied to his dialogues, coupled with their non-technical nature, clearly shows that he intended them to reach as wide an audience as possible. His purposes were probably twofold. As a public intellectual he wanted to influence the policy of his rulers without running the risks of entering politics himself. And he needed money to live. His writings advertised his school and hopefully attracted students.
In contrast, the medical writings that we call the Hippocratic corpus, dating from the fifth century BC, do not seem intended to attract laypeople as readers. Since they are, in the main, anonymous (even if some were, indeed, composed by Hippocrates (c. 460BC – c. 380BC) himself), they would not have made effective advertising. A physician attracted patients thanks to his reputation for cures rather than as a writer. Later, as Greek medicine split into antagonistic schools, much of the output from medical writers became polemical. Physicians would defend their own medical ideology against their rivals. The public were probably nonplussed by these wars among doctors.
An alternative way of life for Greek philosophers who preferred not to teach students was to adorn the court of one of the many despots across the Greek world. The more extravagant the despot, the more plum the post in their palace. And no rulers were quite as despotic as the Ptolemies of Alexandria. Descended from one of the generals of Alexander the Great (356BC – 323BC), the Ptolemies were a family of inbred Macedonians who somehow managed to install themselves on the throne of Egypt and keep themselves there until wiped out by the Romans three hundred years later. As foreigners ruling a strange land, the Ptolemies wanted to encourage Greek immigration to their new capital of Alexandria. A logical way to achieve this was to attract Greeks to their city with a school and library generously endowed with professorships. The resulting Museum and Great Library have become the stuff of legend although, of the library in particular, we know remarkably little for certain. But they certainly fulfilled their purpose. The Museum became a beehive of scholarly activity and many of the ancient world’s greatest mathematicians and natural philosophers worked in Alexandria. We need only mention the names of Euclid (c. 325BC – 265BC) and Ptolemy (fl. 140AD – 170AD) to make the point. This reflected well on the ruling dynasty in Egypt, which was, of course, precisely the point. Natural philosophers and mathematicians no longer needed to explain their ideas to the public, as long as their work was prestigious enough to impress the pharaohs. But there could be trouble if the pharaoh of the day lost interest in his menagerie of scholars or there was no money to pay them. And if, like Ptolemy VIII Psychon (d. 116BC), he was actively hostile, the whole institution might be shut down.
Science as Art: The Romans
By the end of the last century BC, the Greek world had come to be dominated by the Romans. Greek philosophy became a popular fad in Rome and familiarity with its doctrines was a sign of being cultured. Many philosophers moved to Rome where they became teachers and servants to high ranking Romans. For the wider public, handbooks and encyclopaedias started to appear. The best educated Romans could read Greek and they produced summaries of science for their monoglot countrymen. The best known example is that massive compendium of knowledge, the Natural History by Pliny the Elder (d. 79AD).
Pliny himself was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii. His book remained the most complete description of the natural world in Latin until the Middle Ages. Too large to be affordable by anyone except the rich, Pliny’s encyclopaedia was later supplemented by smaller handbooks. These sought to hang their scientific content on some sort of literary peg, either as a commentary on Plato or Cicero (106BC – 43BC), or else weaving the science through a story. During the early Middle Ages, Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Mercury and Philology, written in the fifth century, was the most popular example of the latter technique. Capella gives us a comic account of a wedding where the bridesmaids each represent one of the seven liberal arts, including arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. As a bridesmaid arrives, she gives the guests a lecture on the rudiments of her subject. The final speech, by Astronomy, was often bound separately and used as a textbook in its own right.
Science as Handmaiden: the Middle Ages
After the fall of the Western Empire, the late Roman syllabus was inherited by monastic schools. Classical learning passed to the barbarian tribes that ruled the old imperial territories as part of a Christian package spread by missionaries. The seven liberal arts remained the backbone of education.
In the fourth century, St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) had insisted that Christians have some knowledge of science, if only so that they did not appear foolish to their pagan neighbours. Other church fathers underlined the importance of the seven liberal arts for a proper understanding of the bible. Science was a handmaiden to theology – a subsidiary position certainly, but a privileged and protected one nonetheless. Thus, the old Roman encyclopaedias and textbooks continued to be preserved and studied through the early Middle Ages. But this was an elite activity that took place in monasteries and the Imperial court of Charlemagne.
From the seventh century, much of the Roman Empire, including Egypt and Spain, fell under the rule of Islamic invaders. Briefly, all Muslims were joined into a single Caliphate, but even after it fragmented, Islam long supported a higher level of civilisation than Christian Western Europe. Arabic writers inherited and translated the best of Greek natural philosophy and mathematics before building on it to achieve advances of its own. Because science was not taught in madrassa (Islamic colleges), it always had to defend its position in Muslim society on the basis that it was useful knowledge. Among the ways it did this was through public displays of geometrical art, sundials to calculate the times for prayer and hospitals to cure the sick. But such demonstrations were for elite consumption because Arabic science almost always needed patronage to prosper. Both Greek and Islamic science became available in the Latin West in the twelfth century. Christians began to re-conquer Spain from its Berber masters and in the process captured the magnificent libraries of Toledo intact. At the same time, Greeks who still lived in Sicily and the Byzantine Empire were approached by northern European clerics desperate to obtain the masterpieces of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The newly discovered texts took their place as the advanced syllabus at the new universities, to be tackled once students had mastered the seven liberal arts.
For non-graduates and those not proficient in Latin, science remained a closed book. But gradually vernacular texts began to appear. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) wrote an English treatise on how to use the astrolabe. This was an astronomical instrument that enabled the user to accurately tell the time from the position of the stars or else measure the relative position of the planets to calculate the date. A fantastical traveller’s tale under the name of Sir John Mandeville (fl. 15th century) also contained some accurate information on cosmology as understood at the time. Sermons preached to common folk might also serve to elucidate some scientific topics that touched on the contents of the Bible. As a result, at least no one in the Middle Ages had any excuse for believing the earth to be flat.
Science as Reform: the Early-Modern Era
The trend towards science in the vernacular accelerated in the sixteenth century. Increasing numbers of books appeared and some enjoyed considerable success. The Ground of the Art by Robert Record (c. 1510 – 1558), an English-language arithmetic textbook, went through multiple editions. He followed it up with further guides to geometry and astronomy. On a less practical level, a deluxe English edition of Euclid’s Elements was successfully marketed to wealthy clients who wanted to appear educated. Few of the surviving copies show much sign of ever having been read!
Most natural philosophers continued to work within universities. These institutions demanded that academics taught students to earn their salaries. This limited the time available for research. Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), a mathematician at the University of Padua, was desperate for the patronage that would enable him to conduct his cutting-edge investigations full time. He realised that the best way to get noticed by rich patrons was to give his work as wide an exposure as possible. The more famous he was, the more prestige he could supply to his employer. Galileo was nothing if not an opportunist and in 1608 he saw a chance to make a big splash. He heard that the telescope had been invented in The Netherlands and set out to create his own version. Convincing the Venetian government of its military applications was not difficult, but Galileo had other uses for the instrument as well. He began to carry out observations on the heavens.
Galileo’s pioneering discoveries of the mountains on the moon, the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter were a landmark of science. But just as important was the way he communicated his discoveries. Rather than send out letters to fellow astronomers or publish a tome in Latin, he chose to announce his work in a short book, The Starry Messenger, written in vernacular Tuscan, the forerunner to modern Italian. This meant that he could speak directly to the merchants and burghers of Florence, Bologna and the other city states. For the first time, cutting-edge science was being communicated to the general public. As he had hoped, The Starry Messenger was a sensation and Galileo became an overnight celebrity. On the day of publication, the English ambassador in Venice wrote home to describe the excitement, noting that Galileo could expect either to find great fame or fall flat on his face. Shortly afterwards, Galileo was offered the job he wanted as scientific advisor to the Duke of Tuscany. Obviously, his Grace did not require much by way of scientific advice and his new advisor served merely as a well-remunerated ornament to his court. Installed in this sinecure, Galileo now had the leisure he needed for research.
Galileo deliberately made the public participants in scientific progress. When he wanted to bounce the Catholic Church into accepting the truth of the hypothesis that the earth orbits the sun, rather than the other way around, he wrote in the vernacular again. The resulting scandal saw Galileo convicted as vehemently suspected of heresy. But not even the Catholic Church could stop his ideas from spreading.
For Galileo, the public were there to be persuaded. In England, they were expected to take a more active role in the scientific process. The founders of the Royal Society saw science as analogous to law. When they did experiments, they wanted them to be witnessed as a way of validating what happened. Experiments did not just have to be repeatable, they had to be demonstrable. This meant that they conducted experiments in public meetings. Unfortunately, after some initial interest from King Charles II, the Royal Society found itself short of funds and public exposure. Thomas Sprat (1635 – 1713) helped to drive forward the Royal Society project in its difficult early years by becoming its official propagandist. His book, the History of the Royal Society was a public appeal for the kind of enquiry that he and his colleagues stood for. If people were not willing to get involved in science themselves, they could, at least, support the people who wanted to.
One of the founding fellows of the Royal Society, Robert Boyle (1627 – 91), decided to involve the public in science in a more demanding way. His books, such as The Spring of the Air and The Sceptical Chemist, described his experiments in great detail and urged his readers to repeat them. This meant that his results were not just validated by firsthand witnesses. He also challenged others to replicate his work and prove him wrong. But just in case they did not have the time, he told them what should happen too. And he warned his readers that if they could not reproduce his results first time round, they should try again until they got the ‘right’ answer.
Unfortunately, despite the pretensions of Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), science still had very little practical effect on the common weal. This meant the need to justify natural philosophy as a worthwhile activity was a constant concern. One form of justification, wholeheartedly supported by Boyle, was natural theology. Traditional arguments for religion from nature had looked for the messages that God had implanted in the natural world for the edification of mankind. Thus, the beaver was said to bite off its testicles to evade the hunter much as man should cut out his sinfulness to escape damnation. Natural theology argued in the other direction. Instead of knowledge about God (primarily from scripture) being used to interpret nature, the wonders of nature were used as evidence for God. Boyle endowed public lectures that were intended to glorify both God and science by highlighting the links between the two.
Science as Entertainment: the Eighteenth Century
Through the eighteenth century, people came to see scientific demonstrations dressed up as showmanship. Boyle’s evacuated flask was used to near-suffocate and then revive small birds. Electricity could make people’s hair stand on end; cause pyrotechnic displays and deliver shocks for the entertainment of the masses. From the 1750s, the invention of the Leiden Jar enabled ever bigger jolts to be administered for the amusement of paying punters.
There was some educational value to all this, but that probably passed the majority of the spectators by. Its importance for the demonstrators was greater. Many were working researchers and even those who were employed by universities were expected to provide their own apparatus. Public displays were a good way of raising the necessary cash, as well as promoting the researcher’s own activities. So while the public were no longer expected to be active participants in science, as the early fellows of the Royal Society had hoped that they might be, they were now willing to finance it.
For some, the way that they could harness the powers of nature made the demonstrators into sinister figures. In his famous painting of the vacuum flask experiment, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 97) defined the essence of the scientist as an individual apart and without human attachment. By seeking to thrill the public, and also scare them with his power, the public demonstrator established a character for himself that his successors would come to regret. This image was reinforced by the Romantic Movement and, most particularly, Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818, Frankenstein. Shelley was inspired by demonstrations of galvanism where electricity was shown to cause dead muscle fibres, most notably frog’s legs, to twitch. Thus, among many ordinary people, cutting-edge science had acquired a reputation for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge further than they were meant to go. Men of science already stood accused of ‘playing God’.
The thinkers who took science most seriously in the eighteenth century were the philosophes of the ‘enlightenment’. They became fascinated by the implications of Isaac Newton’s (1643 – 1727) discoveries and wanted to communicate them to a wider public. Newton had written his Principia in Latin so that it would be accessible to an elite audience throughout Europe. But the Optics, less dependent on mathematics, was originally published in English and intended for readers without as much specialist knowledge.
In 1737, the Italian count Francesco Algarotti (1712 – 64) published a popularisation of Newton’s optical work called Newtonianism for Ladies. The title, with its implication that women needed a helping hand to grasp scientific concepts, appears today doubly unfortunate given that one of the most notable experts on Newton’s thought at the time was Madame du Châtelet (1706 – 49). She produced the only French translation to date of the Principia while her lover Voltaire (1694 – 1778) brought out his Elements of Newtonian Philosophy for general readers. This was a competent summary of Newtonian physics which introduced France to universal gravitation and helped to displace Cartesian mechanics with Newton’s. It was even translated into English in the same year it was published in French.
Voltaire’s book brought home the power of the new science to explain the world. It presented Newton’s system as a comprehensive metaphysical explanation of reality. If one could obtain a total description of the current state of the universe, Newtonian physics could provide a complete description of its past, and of its future. This self-regulating universe, something that Newton had explicitly rejected, provided the philosophical justification for deism. Voltaire’s fellow philosophes hatched a grand plan to communicate this worldview to the public, together with a state-of-the-art account of scientific knowledge. The result was the great encyclopaedia edited by Denis Diderot (1713 – 84) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1783), an ideological project cunningly disguised as objective knowledge. The philosophes ensured that science was at home in the salons and tea houses of Europe, communicated through pamphlets and journals intended for educated but non-specialist readers. Even other scientists sometimes depended on these publications to keep up-to-date. Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) and his fellow electrical experimenters in Philadelphia first learnt about European results from an edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine.
Science also had supporters who carried the flame of Francis Bacon’s experimental philosophy. Without a scrap of evidence to support his claims, Bacon had believed knowledge about nature could drive forward human progress. Baconians were interested in the material benefits of science rather than the philosophical implications. The difficulty was that, even as late as the eighteenth century, these benefits had yet to materialise. It is true that industrialisation was gathering pace with the invention of steam engines, automated looms and new steel-making processes. But these advances were empathically not applied science. They sprung from the traditions of craftsmanship and tinkering. Some industrialists, such as Josiah Wedgewood (1730 – 95), contributed scientific papers to the Royal Society, but these were the fruit of a hobby he took up after he developed his new manufacturing techniques in pottery. His success as a manufacturer flowed from the age-old process of trial and error, not from putting scientific theories into practice.
So if the new science was going to bask in the reflected glory of the industrial revolution and be associated in the public’s mind with the resulting material benefits, a certain amount of historical gerrymandering was necessary. This was provided, probably unintentionally, by the Edinburgh professor, John Robison (1739 – 1805). He claimed that Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) had trained Thomas Newcomen (1664 – 1729), inventor of the earliest true steam engine. Robison also stated that the theory of latent heat advanced by his friend Joseph Black (1728 – 99) had aided the development of the separate condenser by James Watt (1736 – 1819). These claims were not refuted until the twentieth century, by which time science’s fictional role in nurturing the industrial revolution was firmly entrenched in the public’s mind.
Science as Progress: the Nineteenth Century
By 1850, some of the grandiose claims that had been made for science by the Baconians finally began to appear realistic. Science and industry formed ever-closer links and the concept of ‘applied science’ became a reality. Lagging some way behind the invention of the steam engine, the new science of thermodynamics explained how heat could be transformed into motion. In Germany, the chemical industry sucked in the first graduates with PhDs to carry out research and development activities. Science ceased to be branch of philosophy and morphed into a practical subject essential to the modern world.
Interest in science blossomed as people came to realise that it was a subject of importance to them. In 1799, the Royal Institution was founded on London’s Albemarle Street as a forum for the public communication of science and a working laboratory. The lectures of Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday drew large and well-heeled crowds who financed the cutting-edge experimental work that took place downstairs. Albemarle Street became London’s first one-way street in 1808, allegedly due to the crush of carriages trying to drop off their occupants for talks at the Royal Institution. In 1825, Faraday inaugurated the Christmas Lectures, specifically for a younger audience and presented them himself on nineteen occasions. A few years later, the British Association for the Advancement of Science ("BAAS") held its first meeting in York. This cultivated a deliberately provincial and democratic flavour, holding a meeting each summer in a different city, which had competed for the privilege of hosting it.
At the Cambridge meeting of the BAAS in 1834, the question was raised as to what men of science should call themselves. They no longer wished to be viewed as gentlemen-amateurs and those who had to earn their living through science could resent the dilettantes. So, the first thing that these new professionals needed was a name. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) posed the question. The Cambridge meeting rejected “philosopher” as too general a term, while “savant” was thought to be too French. William Whewell (1794 – 1866) suggested “scientist” which was rejected as well, but he started to use it in his own writings and it eventually caught on in any case.
In his History of the Inductive Sciences, Whewell also set out to provide science with a suitably heroic history intended to claim the great men of the past, such as Galileo and Newton, as prototypes for the new professionals. And as full-time scientists colonised the societies, journals and university positions, they drove out the amateurs. Many of the marginalised incumbents were members of the clergy who continued to practice science both for its own sake and to promote natural theology through publications like the Bridgewater Treatises. Occasional turf wars, such as when clergy were excluded altogether from the management of the new Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, were magnified in the eyes of the public into a conflict between science and religion. This impression was amplified by bestselling books that told a wholly-mythical story of how science was held back by established superstition at every turn. It is this myth of conflict which continues to dominate public perceptions of science and religion to this very day.
None of this blunted the public appetite for news of the latest scientific advances. The Great Exhibition of 1851 became a “must-see” attraction and cemented the marriage of science and technology in the public’s mind. It portrayed scientists as agents of progress and modernity. Unfortunately, the new status of science was also enjoyed by fields of research that today we consider less worthy of respect. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) used magnetism to produce cures on excitable ladies in Paris, but it was his secrecy rather than the crankiness of his theories which led to his downfall. Franz Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828) invented the new science of phrenology that analysed intelligence and personality through the shape of the skull, incidentally confirming prejudices about the superiority of caucasians. In ante-bellum America, Samuel Morton (1799 – 1851) and others challenged the received wisdom (and the book of Genesis), by claiming that not all human beings were descended from the same primordial stock. This provided another excuse for racism since black people could be assigned to a different species. The public lapped all this up and the reputation of science as progressive and modern meant it could disguise a multitude of what we now recognise as sins. But at the same time, many whom we regard as mainstream scientists were also involved in what now looks like pseudoscience.
Among those who veered into parapsychology was Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913), whose theorising about natural selection finally flushed out Charles Darwin (1809 – 82) and forced him to make public his own ideas. The publication of On the Origins of Species in 1859 came 15 years after The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation written anonymously by the Scottish publisher and journalist, Robert Chambers (1802 – 71). Vestiges had already raised questions in the public’s mind about traditional accounts of natural history and went some way towards softening up opinion for Darwin’s great work. This meant that the concepts of evolution and deep time had already been considered, if largely rejected, by the reading public. Darwin himself helped the spread of his ideas by writing a book that could be easily understood by general readers and even became a bestseller with repeated reprints. He was one of the few great scientists to communicate his ideas directly to the public in the same language that he used for his fellow experts. This probably made it easier for his ideas to spread so rapidly compared to if promulgation had been left to polemical writers like Thomas Huxley (1825 – 95). Huxley’s waspish prose and famous confrontation with the Bishop of Oxford make him an entertaining figure, but he did little for the standing of science in Victorian England.
Science as Profession: The Twentieth Century
Early in the twentieth century, a new kind of institution was founded in Munich (1903) and London (1909) – the museum of science. In fact, despite their names, both are really museums of technology and their function was initially nationalistic. Germany had come later to industrialisation than England, but had harnessed science to technology more effectively. These great museums told visitors that the technological prowess of their respective countries was something that they should be proud of. But by placing science in a museum in the first place, they increased its status, claiming parity of esteem with other branches of culture which already thrived in galleries and exhibitions. Science became a career option to which the educated classes could aspire. The British government wished to encourage this attitude and adopted the practice of ennobling those scientists, beginning with Lord Kelvin (1824 – 1907), who have reached the top of their profession. A Nobel Prize winner can now expect a knighthood by right while the President of the Royal Society is elevated to the House of Lords.
Science could also be big news. In 1919, an expedition was despatched to West Africa and Brazil under the leadership of Arthur Eddington (1882 – 1944) to carry out observations on an eclipse of the sun. They wanted to discover if the sun’s mass bent the light of distant stars as predicted in a recent paper by the German physicist Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955). The confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity made headlines in newspapers all over the world and turned the charismatic German into a celebrity. The public were fascinated by relativity even though, or perhaps because, they could not understand it. Previously, science communication had been about explaining the latest theories and discoveries to the public. In the twentieth century, elucidating concepts like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics became more of a challenge. The strangeness of modern physics, soon coupled to its fantastic destructive power, increased the gulf between scientists and the public.
Luckily, as the century progressed, there were scientists ready to rise to the challenge. Fred Hoyle (1915 – 2001) harnessed the media to explain modern physics though the persona of an avuncular Scotsman. Through his radio talks on the BBC in 1949 and then on television, he reassured the public that science was in the hands of sensible down-to-earth people like him. Television initially supplied an uncritical platform for science to communicate to the world. In the 1970s, major series such as Jacob Bronowski’s (1908 – 74) The Ascent of Man and Carl Sagan’s (1934 – 1996) Cosmos reinforced the nineteenth century narratives of the history of science as a story of progress. The BBC's science magazine show Tomorrow’s World explained new technology and the latest biomedical research in bite-sized segments. More in-depth science programmes, such as the deservedly long-running Horizon, allowed scientists to educate the public about developments in their fields. Science could promulgate its self-image as professional, progressive and benign without too many awkward questions being asked.
And yet surprisingly, none of this has really worked. The public has indeed continued to view ‘scientific proof’ as the gold standard of truth and to lap up its technological benefits. But that has not stopped science communication suffering catastrophic setbacks in recent years. Against the communication skills of the tabloid media and well-funded pressure groups, scientists have fallen short.
Andrew Wakefield (b. 1956) remains a hero to many for continuing to support his claims, now comprehensively falsified, of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He has successfully hijacked the narrative of the brave scientist fighting against establishment dogma, casting himself as Galileo. Genetically modified (“GM”) foods are effectively banned in Europe, which can probably afford the luxury of doing so. But, as a result of European influences, third-world governments have become suspicious of GM crops when their people certainly do need the agricultural benefits that the technology can provide. In the arena of climate change, scientists have allowed themselves to become associated in the minds of the public with environmentalist political movements. This allowed global warming sceptics to claim that the science of climate change is ideologically tainted and, as a result, cannot be trusted. Finally, in conservative Christian circles, and increasingly among Muslims, creationism has dressed itself in cloths that scientists had tailored for themselves. Intelligent Design theorists use the language and accoutrements of mainstream science even as they attempt to undermine it.
The publishing genre of popular science has become the most effective way to explain complicated ideas to a wide audience. There have been books about science for the general reader since Pliny the Elder, but authors like Brian Greene (b.1963) and Richard Dawkins (b.1941) have been able to explain their fields of string theory and evolution in language that both enlightens and entertains. The disadvantage is that the public can be given the impression that ideas which may be of marginal significance to working scientists are central to the discipline. Furthermore, good popular science can remain in print rather longer than its contents remain current. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (b. 1942) kicked off the current trend for books by distinguished scientists on difficult topics. It continues to sell even though cosmology has moved on considerably in the 20 years since it first came out. Nonetheless, science publishing for the general reader is currently enjoying a golden age communicating the full breadth of modern science to the public.
Selected Further ReadingJames McClellan and Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction, Second Edition (Baltimore: 2006)
David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to AD 1450, Second Edition (Chicago, 2008)
James Hannam, God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009)
Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1998)
John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, Third Edition (London, 2008)
Thomas Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1985)
David Knight, The Making of Modern Science: Science, Technology, Medicine and Modernity 1798 - 1914 (Cambridge, 2009)
All quotations from or references to this essay should be accompanied by a link back to this page and the name of the author. This essay may be reproduced only with permission of the author although such permission will not normally be declined.
© James Hannam 2017