Our own Matthew Cobb has just appeared on the Five Books site, where Jo Marchant interviews him about his five choices for “best books in the history of science”. (I think he really means the five best books that are accessible to the layperson.) It’s a good interview, and Matthew sounds very smart, which he is; but I don’t often encounter him in academic mode so I was doubly impressed. Here are his choices; only the first was obvious to me:
I’ll refer you to the Five Books site to read the whole Q&A, but I’ll show just two bits:
Your day job is as a geneticist studying the sense of smell but you also write and translate history books. What is it that draws you to history and, in particular, the history of science?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but if we don’t understand where we’ve come from, it’s very hard to know where we are going. Just as Dobzhansky said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” I don’t think much makes sense about all aspects of human culture, including science, unless you know something about its history and where it came from.
I’m not sure I agree with all that, for if you study science in general, you often learn about the history of your field as part of your studies—or at least about the sequential development of ideas. So, for instance, if you pick up a good evolution textbook, it will talk about Darwin, Wallace, the Modern Synthesis and so on. And even to the extent that a budding scientist doesn’t learn this, it’s not going to impede her work. There are surely plenty of genome biologists, for instance, who don’t know about the work of Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty in the 1940s. That was fantastic research, but you don’t need to know how they figured out that the hereditary material was a nucleic acid to do modern work in genomics. On this one point, then, I take issue with Matthew, though I’m going to tell him I’m writing this and invite him to discuss these issues—and address readers’ comments and questions—in the comments below.
One bit I like a lot is Matthew’s implicit dismissal of the idea that there are ways of knowing other than science, for if the humanities were another “way of knowing,” then knowledge in those fields would be progressive (I’m probably projecting a bit here):
Is there anything particular about science where its history tends to get ignored? It’s important to understand the history — because that’s how we know what we know, right?
The key thing about scientific knowledge is that science is cumulative: we now know more about the world, in a better way, than we did 100 years ago. That doesn’t hold for artistic creation. So, for example, we can’t prove that Keats was a better writer than Shakespeare. ‘Better’ doesn’t really mean anything in that context. Science is progressive, in that it builds upon previous knowledge.
I’d go further: the understanding and analysis of literature hasn’t much progressed, in the sense of giving us knowledge about humanity, in the past several centuries. We get fads like postmodernism, but they come and go, leaving no new “knowledge” in their wake. Yes, the human condition has changed, and literature documents and embroiders it, but insofar as understanding facts about humans and their behavior, well, science broadly construed* is the only game in town.
Finally, Matthew gives us a hint about his next book, buried in his discussion of Galen and the World of Knowledge:
The book I’m writing at the moment is about the brain and how we know what we know about this amazing structure. I needed to understand some of the earliest studies into brain function, in particular those by Galen, who did a series of remarkable and extremely distressing experiments proving that the brain controlled movement.
Now I’m sure readers will have their own history-of-science books to suggest for this list. One I mentioned to Matthew was Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation, a fantastic history of molecular genetics, but Matthew told me he thought it too technical for the lay reader. I disagree. Feel free to ask questions or make comments below, but go look at Matthew’s choices and his reasons for making them.
What I mean by “science broadly construed” is a combination of repeatable and testable empirical observations, doubt, and reason.