Tuesday, 17 September 2002

Brian L. Silver: The Ascent of Science (1998)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 2000
Review number: 1117

In the same way that new translations of classic works of literature need to appear for each generation to understand their relevance to them in particular, so too it is necessary for a new explanation of science for the general reader to be published every few years. The title of Brian L. Silver's book clearly invites comparison with Jakob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and the equivalent in my teenage years was Isaac Asimov's Everyman's Guide to Science. The reasons why new books are needed are pretty obvious: as scientific and technological research proceed, the issues of interest to "the man in the street" or what science has to say about them will also change; twenty years ago many current controversies such as genetic modification of crops were futuristic science fiction.

Much of the ground covered is of course the same, but the good writer on basic science will stamp their personality on the material; they will make the story of scientific discovery their own. The particular slant an author takes is obviously going to be dependent on their ideas about science and its practitioners. Bronowski was interested in scientific progress, so The Ascent of Man turned out to be an integrated narrative. Isaac Asimov was interested in the all pervasiveness of science in the modern world, so that his book was a comprehensive general reference book.

The Ascent of Science is not as comprehensive as Asimov's book (which contains details on such things as the measurement of air pressure) and not as development oriented as Bronowski's (it is not, for instance, organised chronologically). What, then, are his concerns? In the last decades of the twentieth century, criticism of science (which includes both the well-informed and the mindless) has become increasingly vociferous, mainly as a result of debate about environmental issues. Silver is interested in this, and presents a lot more of the arguments there have been about scientific theories through history, rather than presenting currently supported ideas as gospel or acknowledging critics only be briefly ridiculing creationism as is done in many books for the general reader (for whom Silver appropriates the phrase "l'homme moyen sensuel"). He generally defends current scientific orthodoxy, while retaining some sympathy with those who attack science. (The penultimate chapter, "What the devil does it all mean?" includes some cogent criticisms of scientists, particularly those who take an overly grandiose view of their own work; he singles out certain enthusiasts for the Superconducting Supercollider and the Human Genome Project.) Above all, he wants to promote reasoned debate, and one of the major purposes of The Ascent of Science is to make it possible for a non-professional to take an informed part in such a discussion. This makes The Ascent of Science more concerned with the philosophy behind scientific thought than most books at this level, yet Silver's writing is always accessible. The well chosen bibliography would provide an excellent springboard for anyone wanting to learn more about the details of some aspect of science covered here.

The Ascent of Science is clear and well written, surely destined to become something of a classic of this genre. It is a real pity that Silver will never be able to update it (he died between completion and publication of the book). It has much to offer even those who know more about science, containing details and viewpoints which were new to me; accounts of the controversies of the past are particularly fascinating.

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