Saturday, April 11, 2009
Review: Ingenious Pursuits, by Lisa Jardine
Ingenious Pursuits, by Lisa Jardine, copyright 2004 and published by Random House.
Ingenious Pursuits is a very interesting series of stories that center on the scientific community in England (and to a lesser extent that of continental Europe) from the mid 1600's to the early 1700's. This structure is both its strength and its weakness. Each chapter takes a scientific topic or set of related topics and explores how the various personalities of the age contributed to the discoveries on that topic. For example, Chapter 1 begins with the sightings of two comets in 1680/1681 and carries a string of personal friendships, rivalries and professional jealousies and ends with Newton's Principia Mathematica, which lays out his work on the science of motion, and on gravity. Various chapters tackle topics in physics, chemistry, biology, medical science and botany. What is lacking is a feel for the "big picture".
The book is very interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the interactions between the scientists responsible for some of the discoveries underlying modern science. Part of what is most interesting is how most of these people were not just involved in one field, but maintained an intense curiousity about all fields. Robert Hooke, for instance, of Hooke's Law fame (describing the restoring force of springs) was also a major player in the study of the biology of respiration, was an architect and surveyor, and wrote a book describing his studies using a microscope. But despite the inherent interest in the subject matter, I really do feel the lack of a larger perspective handicaps this book. It almost feels like a student paper where the student has done lots of good research, but doesn't quite bring it all together in the end. And yes, I know the author is a professor.
Worth reading, but get it from the library.
What other people thought about Ingenious Pursuits:
A review at The Reading Nook.