Ingenious Pursuits

February 23, 2008 at 8:59 am Leave a comment

Ingenious PursuitsIngenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution by Lisa Jardine (science history, 392 pages)

Over the past several years, I’ve read and truly enjoyed a number of novels set in Restoration England, and through these I have developed an interest in the Royal Society–it ties in so well with one of my nonfiction interests, which is the history of science. I had been looking for some time for a history of the Royal Society, and when I mentioned this to some of my LibraryThing friends, one of them recommended Lisa Jardine and in particular Ingenious Pursuits which, while not a history of the Royal Society, touches on many of their experiments and discoveries early in their creation.

The theme of Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits is that scientific study and discovery most often occurs collaboratively or competitively, with information or theory or partial discovery by one person touching off experimentation or discovery by another. She focuses in this book on the late 17th and early 18th century in Europe, which saw an explosion of interest in science and the development of rigorous hypothesis and testing, with demonstrable, independently verified results.

Much like the wide-reaching interests of the Royal Society itself, Jardine ranges through an astonishing variety of subjects in this book–astronomy, microscopy, blood circulation, respiration, cellular structure, botany, air pressure, deep-sea diving–the list goes on and on. At times, I really wanted to wave my hands and beg her to slow down, so I could get more detail. This was what I found frustrating about the book, and it’s certainly not the author’s fault. It is by its nature an overview, so she couldn’t get too in-depth about anything. However, I do fault her for bringing up the longitude problem several times, and various scientists’ attempts to solve it, but never touching on John Harrison, who actually did invent a working marine chronometer.

The methods used by these scientists were fascinating and often crude, and in some instances stomach churning. The faint-of-heart should probably avoid the chapter that discusses circulation and respiration, since the studies on these were largely done via dog vivisection. Animal cruelty abounds in these pages, but the scientists also did quite a bit of study on themselves, particularly when they were testing medications.

As I said earlier, I’ve read a lot of fiction set in this time period, and I was delighted to read about the real-life work of some (mostly) minor characters from those books, including Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and John Wilkins (all of whom appeared in Neal Stephenson’s wonderful Baroque Cycle); Charles Mason, Jeremiah Dixon, and Nevil Maskelyne (from Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon); and many others. Robert Hooke holds a particular fascination for me, and I will be seeking out Jardine’s biography of him, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London.

I would highly recommend Ingenious Pursuits to anyone with an interest in modern science as an essential look at its roots.

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