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Seeing and Believing

The scientific method for comprehending the world.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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In 1935, Ernst Gombrich, scion of a bourgeois Viennese Jewish family, and newly minted Ph.D. in art history, found himself out of work. Walter Neurath, a friend and publisher, asked him to look over an English history book for children and, if it was any good, to translate it into German. Neurath wanted to publish it in his new series “Knowledge for Children.”  

Copernicus and his planisphere (detail), 1661

Copernicus and his planisphere (detail), 1661

AISA / EVERETT COLLECTION

A few days later, the 26-year-old Gombrich returned the book with the remark, “I think I could write a better one myself.” Neurath asked him to deliver. Reading in his parents’ library in the morning, studying period documents in the afternoon, and writing at night, Gombrich produced, under great time pressure, what was to be his only book in German: Eine Weltgeschichte von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart (1936). The book was an instant success, and has remained in print. With its brevity and intended audience, it mocked the then-ubiquitous, multi-tomed, solid leather Universalgeschichten (global histories) designed to give heft to the achievements of the urban bourgeoisie. 

Gombrich’s tone was light, his approach literary, his attitude toward his young readers engaging and conversational. What would a 10-year-old in 1935 really have to know about knights and courtly love, or the rebirth of humanism, in order to begin her privileged life in one of Europe’s most cultured cities?

Quite a bit, Gombrich thought: Even children were then expected to know things and to think about them.  Gombrich squeezed all of European history, from the cavemen to the end of World War I, into 39 chapters, an appealing number to children because it’s three times the creepy 13. He added chapter 40 only in 1985 when he revised the book for its 50th anniversary. The new chapter covered World War II, and Gombrich ingeniously called it “The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself.” He was thus able to connect the ending to his opening reflections from 1935: History is that which has occurred and is being told to be remembered.

Gombrich’s book did not appear in English until 2005, when Yale University Press published it under the playful title A Little History of the World. The “world” aspect of it is a bit of a sham since, of the 39 chapters, only three deal with China and one with India. The book is unapologetically Eurocentric, since its original intention was to explain to German-speaking children, in 1935, how they had come into being.  

It is worth knowing all this about Gombrich’s still-superb book because Yale is now publishing A Little History of Science, a brilliantly conceived and beautifully written companion volume that picks up precisely where Gombrich left off. Its author, a historian of medicine who received an M.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. from Cambridge, has retired from teaching at University College London and is an experienced hand at writing both short and long histories of medicine and science. This shows in the ease with which he packs the interrelated histories of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry, and their cousins, medicine, biology, and pharmacology, into 39 chapters, covering the expanding universe of the mind from the structuring of time in Babylonia to string theory in America, with an add-on 40th chapter about the new dimensions of science in the digital age. 

Ernst Gombrich had made little noises about the “advances” and “blessings of science,” but had focused on politics, economics, and culture, leaving out the ravishing history of science that unfolds in Europe, and very clearly only there until the early 19th century, when America and other places with modern universities begin to come into the picture. 

If anything, Bynum’s book is even more unapologetically Eurocentric than Gombrich’s: Only three of his chapters are set outside Europe. One is regarding medicine and math in the medieval Islamic world, where ancient Greek knowledge was studied and rehashed. The other two chapters—about ancient Babylon and Egypt, and medieval China and India—constitute the fuzzy opening of the book. In them, Bynum is forced to use science as an agent in his sentences (“science is building .  .  .”) because he cannot derive a good concept of science from the ancient cultures of Babylonia and Egypt, suffused as they were with religious and magical ideas. Nor can he derive a clear definition of science from the mind-boggling engineering feats of China (the Great Wall and the Grand Canal) or the thoughtful medical-philosophical teachings of India.  

Bynum swims free of the fuzziness only when he reaches the Greeks, in the third chapter, and can deliver his first clear definition of science: “Thales really wanted to explain things in natural, rather than supernatural, terms. The Egyptians thought that the Nile flooded because of the gods.” In the subsequent chapter on Hippocrates, an even better opportunity presents itself to define science.  

The famous opening sentence of Hippocrates’ essay on epilepsy, “The Sacred Disease,” articulates the starting point of modern science: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but, on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” Bynum wants to drive that message home: “[T]he firm statement—that you can’t say a disease has a supernatural cause simply because it is unusual or mysterious or hard to explain—might be said to be the guiding principle of science.” But then he blows the opportunity: “We may not understand it now, but with patience and hard work, we can.” 

Patience and hard work are also attributes of hunters, peasants, and Benedictine monks. What sets scientists apart is their rigorous observation of natural phenomena, allowing patterns to emerge that can be expressed in abstract formulae, which, in turn, can be applied to produce identical results any time they are reapplied in identical conditions. To “do science” means to subscribe to a mindset that distinguishes scrupulously between immanence and transcendence, between the natural and the supernatural, between what is in the world as a verifiable phenomenon and what is merely felt. 

When you write for children, your definitions must be perfectly clear from the outset. A clear definition of the scientific mindset, which had its birthplace in ancient Greece and thrived in Europe as the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to lose its hold on intellectuals, is key to explaining the exclusion of most of Asia and all of Africa and South America from a history of science.  

As Bynum moves on to Aristotle, Galen, Paracelsus, Vesalius, Copernicus, and William Harvey, his writing evolves into a marvel of conceptual and verbal clarity. Yet it is the structure of this book that is his greatest achievement. He begins his second triad of 13 chapters with Bacon and Descartes, zooming in on Descartes’s insights that he had to start over again, and that he had to gain perfect clarity about the difference between matter and mind. In this second triad, Bynum moves—by way of Newton, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Darwin, and many others—from the mind-body split to the sighting of bacteria. Bynum begins his third triad with the discovery of the mechanisms underlying infectious diseases, and moves in a grand sweep onward to discoveries of ever-smaller particles in physics and biology, until he arrives at bosons and the molecular building blocks of genes. 

And then, miraculously, one is tempted to say, the reversal happens: Out of these tiniest of particles, one of which (the Higgs boson) is still a conjecture, the huge blueprints of life emerge, a potential “theory of everything” via string theory and the Human Genome Project—both of which have come within cognitive reach only through splitting the world into ever-smaller elements. 

This grand sweep of science, from getting to know the movements of bodies (planetary and human) to elucidating their deepest structure and tiniest building blocks, would have offered Bynum the opportunity to connect the ending to his beginning if he had started not with the triviality that “science is special” (followed by a hazy account of the Babylonians, who were “good at astronomy”), but with the razor-sharp narrative presented in the Book of Genesis. In the biblical “beginning,” the world is divided into ever-smaller units, ending in the emergence of the consciousness that names them.  

Had Bynum started with that “beginning,” he would, like Gombrich, have come full circle and achieved “an easy commerce of the old and the new,” as T. S. Eliot said. But this is a mere quibble with an otherwise stunning account of scientific progress that ought to be mandatory reading for everyone age 10 and up.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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