Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Unsung scientists

I always enjoy revisionist history. Some years back, the Channel 4 series The Dragon has Two Tongues featured Gwyn Alf Williams, who argued the importance of ordinary people in the context of Welsh history, which traditionally was presented as a list of the reigns and conquests of various kings. His Marxist view of history has since become far more mainstream; it no longer makes sense to look at a pyramid as an outstanding monument and achievement of a Pharaoh without considering the cultural context that made him a god-king able to draw on the workforce and the resources of a civilisation.
      In this light, I was very interested to read A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks" by Clifford D Conner, which brings a similar perspective to science and technology. The idea persists of a history of science driven by a succession of "Great Men with Great Ideas", and Conner's aim is to survey that history "from the bottom up" to demonstrate the origin of science in the collective activities of working people.
      The eight-chapter book is organised chronologically. After a scene-setting chapter, it begins with Were hunter-gatherers stupid?; this attempts to get at prehistory, with a particular focus on Polynesian navigation in the Pacific. This can hardly be called anything but a science, involving an astonishing body of memorised data based on a 'sidereal compass' and knowledge of ocean swells and their refraction around islands. More on this at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology online exhibit, Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific: A Search for Pattern).
      What "Greek Miracle"? debunks the idea of ancient Greece as the originator of science. The ancient Greeks themselves didn't believe it, crediting Egypt, and A People's History looks at this and other bodies of science: the much-maligned Roman science (if not "scientific", an originator of long-lasting impressive practical technology) and the now better-known contributions of the Islamic world and China.
      Blue water sailors and the navigational sciences focuses particularly on Prince Henry the Navigator, whose PR paints him as originator of sailing out of sight of land. Commodore Collins of the British Admiralty scoffed at the idea of the "persistent myth" of coast-hugging, so dangerous that he said the idea clearly wasn't originated by a sailor. A People's History provies many examples of cross-ocean voyages prior to Henry the Navigator, noting that most of the required navigational knowledge (for instance, how to use the Gulf Stream) was originated collectively by unknown or little-known sailors. The heroes of exploration often simply acquired that knowledge by kidnapping locals.
      The remainder of the book explores the development of a scientific elite from the 1500s to the present day. There are honourable examples of independent scientists from mundane backgrounds who got the credit they deserved (such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek). But Conner reveals a repeated pattern of now well-known figures being remembered for discoveries made by little-known craftsmen and artisans, either before them or working for them. Tycho Brahe, for instance, was in his later career effectively the administrative head of a research institution: a form of organisation that Conner argues came to dominate science, first via the academies then via a Victorian 'union of capital and science' that persists until today.
      Backed up by a wealth of well-referenced historical detail, this is a fascinating investigation of a largely hidden part of scientific history. - Ray

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