Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Little History of Science by William Bynum

Though the edition I picked up didn’t look like a children’s book, William Bynum’s A Little History of Science is written for children. I’m in my forth decade and I enjoyed it anyway.

The title suggests the subject, but hardly the breadth. Bynum starts with the first, unnamed people to observe and think about the world around them. He ends with current science such as computer science and gene mapping.

It wouldn’t be write to say that depth suffers because of the breadth. Admittedly, each chapter covers a subject that could in itself provide enough material for a book. However, Bynum’s purpose is to provide an introduction to a lot of areas of science and to show how scientific knowledge grows and improves over time. It covers all the major branches of science including physics, chemistry, and biology. He does this very well.

For someone who wants a place to get started, especially a youngster interested in history or science, this is a good book. Though Bynum does not include a bibliography, he drops a lot of names. Almost every notable name in scientific history, and a few lesser known, is mentioned, so someone could be equipped with a list of names when the hit the card catalog to find the next book that might interest them.

I do not know if Bynum subscribes to the “big men” notion of history. As much as he mentions the major figures and the leaps some of them made, he emphasizes the incremental, even iterative, nature of science. Even so, learning history through biography can be interesting because history is the cumulative action of people, even if a single person can’t truly turn the tide, and some people are interesting, especially the cranky ones (like Isaac Newton). Bynum adds enough biographical touches to his history to add this kind of spice.

If you’re interested in these books, you may also be interested in

Bynum, William. A Little History of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.