Issue 15 Science Shoutout

How we know what we know

đź•’ 6 min

If you have ever sat in a science class, you might be familiar with the classic science-teacher opening to an introductory lesson on a new topic. Quite typically, you are not given an immediate outline of the new concepts, but rather briefed on how and why we came to know them in the first place. If you are to study the classical law of universal gravitation, you first need to know the story of how an apple supposedly decided to study the crown of Isaac Newton’s head. You might think this is somewhat silly. Why turn a physics lecture into a history class? Well, there is a reason for this trend, and it is not to fill time.

Sometimes people discover new things by sheer luck or coincidence. Sometimes we ask questions just for the sake of asking them. Sometimes, however, discoveries are made as people attempt to shed light on an existing problem. The Isaac Newton example may be a bit of a stretch, but consider the problem that brought Newton to one part of his formulation of calculus. He needed a way to describe the motion of an object whose speed changed every split second, which he couldn’t do with the mathematics of the time. Then consider how Leibniz came to the same idea. He was more interested in a purely mathematical problem, studying tangents and curves. Just from those two examples, you’ve got two different approaches to the same mathematical tool. Besides, you often learn quite a bit of the science along the way. You can draw connections between the story and the properties of the thing you’re learning about. That is a powerful memorization technique, one you can actually learn to employ on purpose.

But where to start? There are many good popular science books, many of which have the history of scientific discovery as a primary or secondary focus (in varying degrees of breadth, everything between telling the story of science as a whole and that of a very specific breakthrough). Here is a small selection of some that might help you make your way into this sort of literature. Some are more famous than others, and there is a slight bias towards physics (your darling author is guilty as charged for that one), but any that you give a shot should hopefully be useful to you.

The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin

The Discoverers is by far the oldest book on this list, having first been published in 1983. That is both an upside and a downside – many still cite it as one of their favorite science history resources out there, telling of its quality, but the information in it sometimes shows its age. It is also first and foremost a historical account, and not a scientific one. It describes more than just the coming of age of science in the past few centuries. The story it tells is really that of how humans discovered they could, well, discover things. If you are prepared to take Boorstin’s words with a grain of salt (and take advantage of the fact that you can attempt to verify whatever you want much more easily than you could have in the 80’s), you may find that it introduces you to some new groundbreaking discoveries, contextualizes those you were already familiar with, and – perhaps even most importantly – drives home the idea that it is important to find out what is true and not to prove yourself right.

The Scientists by John Gribbin

We have mentioned a different John Gribbin book on the blog before, and this one is no less worthy of a recommendation. In contrast to The Discoverers, The Scientists starts at a much later point in human history, describing the buildup to the Scientific Revolution during the Renaissance and continuing through the centuries that followed. Its other distinction is reflected in its name – there is a special focus on the figures of science history, the scientists themselves, both the more renowned ones and those you may never have heard of (not unlike another, older book you might want to check out, if you have an interest in math, Men of Mathematics). Gribbin doesn’t spare you of the concepts, however. His writing is (often) very readable, though, whether you are familiar with the ideas he is covering or not.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

If reading about the excitingly spirited people behind great scientific breakthroughs piques your interest, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes may be worth a read. This book’s area of interest is yet narrower than the last. It places its attention on the Romantic Era at the end of the 18th century, which brought about a sort of second revolution in science. Holmes also tries to paint a picture of the atmosphere of the time, one of a general excitement for discovery and change. Really, though, the book is primarily short biographies about the Romantic scientists, along with all their quirks and qualities. But yes, it does provide a sort of broader context to how science then affected culture, which may or may not be to your liking. All in all, it had a similar goal as The Scientists, but with a magnifying glass placed over this particular part of human (*Western) history.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

And then there is A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson has written books on many, much less comprehensive subjects, but in this one he promises to (briefly) cover the biggest, broadest subjects of all. It delivers on that promise, too. “Nearly Everything” in this case refers to the journey from the beginning of the cosmos to the dawn of civilization. You can expect a condensed account of how Everything came to be, which is really a collection of anecdotes from several areas of interest (from physics to anthropology). In order to do this, Bryson also touches upon how we learned the things we know, but even more so on how fantastically little that is compared to all there is to be known. Finally, to those unfamiliar with Bryson’s writing, it is important to stress just how witty and welcoming it can be, while remaining impressively informative and memorable. This book is, in its own way, the antithesis to textbooky nonfiction, as it makes an effort to remain as enjoyable as possible.

Only the Longest Threads by Tasneem Zehra Husain

Tasneem Zehra Husain’s Only the Longest Threads differs quite a lot from all the other books on this list because it is, really, a work of fiction. It is a book about physics, specifically its greatest turning points, but it doesn’t simply lay out the concepts or summarize great physicists’ lives. Instead, it presents the point of view of fictional characters witnessing big breakthroughs as they happen. It is surprisingly accessible as a result – the physics in this book requires next to no existing knowledge from the reader. It still manages to showcase just how revolutionary one’s thinking needs to be to cause a paradigm shift. The book itself is also brilliantly written, from a literary point of view. More than anything, it is a successfully put-together story, and is therefore one of the most refreshing physics books you can find.

Hopefully one (or more) of these books proves useful or compelling to you. Did any capture your interest? If so, let us know in the comments. If you have your own recommendations, please don’t refrain from sharing them either.

By Laura Busak

Laura is a physics student with a love for all things cosmic. She enjoys making and listening to music, reading books that make her think, and generally doing whatever random things she thinks of, often until 2 am.

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