Matthew Cobb chooses the five best books on the history of science

December 5, 2015 • 12:01 pm

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.

37 thoughts on “Matthew Cobb chooses the five best books on the history of science

  1. Yes, I thought the liberal arts were a way of knowing how the world works so that’s what I majored in at the U of Chicago. Literature, history, philosophy. They were fascinating and immensely enjoyable subjects, of course, but I’ve slowly come to realize that that was all. Strange how we live in the great age of science and how few realize that. I didn’t until a few years ago. As an excuse I guess I can claim that I never had a good science or math teacher in school so nothing triggered a spark that made me want to study science. I suspect there aren’t many good math or science teachers which is sad. But at least there are many good science books now. Thanks for pointing out some more.

    1. “As an excuse I guess I can claim that I never had a good science or math teacher in school so nothing triggered a spark that made me want to study science.”

      To quote Paul Lockhart from his “A Mathematician’s Lament”:

      “If teaching is reduced to mere data transmission, if there is no sharing of excitement and wonder, if teachers themselves are passive recipients of information and not creators of new ideas, what hope is there for their students?”

  2. While I agree that we don’t need to know the historic details of our fields to do good science today, we can be much better judges of current controversial scientific topics if we have seen how past ones were resolved, and what kinds of evidence gave the more insightful clues. It is also always humbling, and a good brake on scientific hubris, to read about how and why smart men defended theories we now know are wrong.

  3. I loved, and learned a lot from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It’s not only informative it’s a fun, and easy read. It’s formatted much like the TV series Connections. Showing how one discovery lead to another ultimately resulting in our knowledge of tectonic plates, evolution or the big bang.

  4. I feel obliged to point out that Galen was ignored by the “intellectuals” of the dark ages (ie: the Church) forcing Western civilization to rediscover those discoveries indirectly.

    Stupid Church who stupidly likes to say it brought us so much intellectualism!

    I’m glad Matthew is giving Galen the attention those mediaeval jerks didn’t!

  5. After reading this I immediately went to Amazon to buy a few. When searching “The new ocean” in amazon, without an author’s name, in the books category, the top 5 books where all very niche romance collections.
    Some reviews of Burrow’s book complain about it having too much detail, it sounds ideal. Thank you.

    Was Uncle Brian’s eating four Weetabix a usual thing, or just for special occasions?

    You said that “if we don’t understand where we’ve come from, it’s very hard to know where we are going.” In science, how does understanding it’s history help us know where we are going? Can you give any examples where it has helped you? I thought that would be impossible to know.

  6. “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson; Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything” and Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”.

  7. I liked John Gribbin’s book The Scientists, which is a biographical approach to the history of science, quite a bit.

    Stephen Jay Gould’s ten books of collected essays are filled with wonderful bits from the history of science, too.

    Crease and Mann’s The Second Creation, a history of particle physics is very interesting, as is Coming of Age in the Milky Way, a history of astronomy, by Timothy Ferris.

  8. I had sort of worked out that science was the only way of knowing but not knowing how to proceed went into stasis, procrastination and it wasn’t until a lay person’s science book fell into my lap many years later I got the kick I needed.
    That book was ‘Children of the Universe’ by Hoimar Von Ditfurth I did not like the title but after reading it and years later, I could not agree more. I now tend to think, we (all life) are more ‘products’ of the universe 😎
    The more we progress along (broadly speaking) the science continuum, we shed, shred and add science books is my way of knowing.
    I and fellow ‘lays’ if I can speak for them also have to apply science principles, this I like, as in, not deceiving my own fool self and in this light, the history of any given field is important to a lay reader as well.
    If we can understand the process and the implications, outcomes after having it described by a scientist who writes for ‘lays’, science lay persons can reason for doubt and counter claims for themselves.
    The humble printing press is up there with the wheel.
    Look forward to adding Mr Cobb’s book to my read list, especially as it’s about brains.

  9. I liked Steven Weinberg’s “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science”, which isn’t so much a history of science as the history of how we learned to do science. “The Ways of Knowing” seemed interesting, so I went to put it on my online wish list and learned that it cost 48 bucks – for a paperback. I decided to remain ignorant.

    1. Steven Weinburg has an essay on this topic in the most recent New York Review of Books. He talks about the need to keep an awareness of the present when doing history of science, because science is progressing in learning about the world and learning how to learn. I found the essay very interesting, so am inclined to want to read Weinburg’s book, but all Matthew Cobb’s suggestions (for laypersons) interest me as well. Great post.

  10. For my preliminary examination in Public Health Genetics at the University of Washington, they drilled me on “other ways of knowing.” I’m not kidding. I was asked to write about the Collins/Varmus precision medicine plan to sequence a million people in light of “other ways of knowing” and what the social implications of sequencing that many people could mean. In other words, I was supposed to say that privileging genetic knowledge could be misleading as there are other narratives about what makes us sick and healthy.

  11. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: “Plato at the Googleplex:Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.”
    A dose of history of science, plus a defense of a kind of progress in philosophy, plus five delightful dialogues featuring a resurrected Plato and Google software engineers.

  12. 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.

    If that isn’t a compelling teaser, I don’t know what would be!

  13. Matthew Cobb’s remark on Keats and Shakespeare might be better phrased as: it makes no sense to say that Keats is a better writer than Shakespeare on the grounds that he comes later in time. Or that ‘King Lear’, say, is better than the ‘Ode to Autumn’ on the same grounds. (In certain limited respects, though, it is perfectly possible to say that a writer is better than another who wrote before him on the grounds that he has discovered and explored possibilities that that other writer did not – so that Shakespeare, for example, is a far greater writer than John Lyly.) Nor of course does it make sense to say that Einstein, or some lesser scientist, was a greater scientist than Newton on the grounds that he comes later in time. What does make sense is to say that Einstein’s theory is better than Newton’s on the grounds that it accounts for things better.

    Similarly, in literary criticism, a book like Heather Glen’s ‘Vision & Disenchantment: Blake’s Songs & Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads’ (1983) created a new and better understanding of what Blake and Wordsworth were about – and made interpretations of the poems that are far superior to those of, say, Geoffrey Keynes. The better understanding of Elizabethan theatrical practice as well as of that theatre’s relation to English politics has resulted in generally better understandings and interpretations of the plays – works like the East German scholar Robert Weimann’s ‘Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre’, A. D. Nuttall’s ‘Shakespeare the Thinker’, Alexander Leggatt’s ‘Shakespeare’s Political Drama’, Kieran Ryan’s ‘Shakespeare’ and the American philosopher Stanley Cavell’s brilliant essays on seven plays of Shakespeare are very far from being mere expressions of some ‘fad’ or other. They incorporate new knowledge and thinking and throw light on actual works of literature, and they have superseded, thank Whatever, the stale and stultifying ‘Elizabethan World Picture’ view of the plays (Tillyard’s) that reduced the plays to mere expressions of an Age, as well as the New Historicist prejudice that the plays reproduce patterns of oppression and do not question them. It really is wrong to assert that there is no progress in any discipline that is not science. And the subsuming of everything in the humanities under ‘post-modernism’, which we can all agree to dislike, is also wrong. There is plenty of good work about. I am not pretending the works I have mentioned are in any way on the extraordinary level of Einstein’s (but then of course neither is the great bulk of scientific work), but there is responsible scholarship and responsible criticism and it does not do to dismiss it or to remain ignorant of it.

    It is also not very clear whether what is being talked about and dismissed as in the end of small worth – for that is what that belittling ‘documents and embroiders’ is surely intended to suggest – is literature itself or scholarly and critical work on literature. They really cannot be so confused, and treated together in so broad and cavalier a manner.

    Regarding ‘knowledge’ and the arts, Thomas Piketty, the economist, remarks more than once in his ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ on the depth of understanding of the economic structure of their nations displayed by Jane Austen and Balzac. And the social scientist Pierre Bourdieu has remarked on the understanding of social forces in nineteenth-century France displayed by Flaubert in ‘L’Education Sentimentale’, an understanding that he felt was superior to most of the social scientists of Flaubert’s time (and superior in quality to many of the understandings of contemporary social scientists of contemporary society). I see that recently Stephen Pinker, perhaps under the influence of his wife (whose ‘Plato at the Googleplex’ has been rightly praised by another commenter), has come to admit that Shakespeare may have had a few insights into human nature… There is a great deal of knowledge implicit in the arts that has not been put into scientific form.

    I really do not see how, say, Shalamov’s ‘Kolyma Tales’, Borowski’s ‘This Way to the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen’, Valery Grossman’s ‘Life & Fate’, Vargas Llosa’s ‘The Feast of the Goat’, Blake’s ‘London’ or ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (in ‘Songs of Innocence’), certain plays by Harold Pinter and Edward Bond, and the politically perceptive and daring plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries can be regarded as merely ‘documenting’ and ‘embroidering’ things. That is certainly not how the plays of Shakespeare at least were regarded in his time or have since been regarded by those suffering under political oppression. A couple of quotations:

    (from the BBC)
    ‘In Soviet-era Lithuania, there were productions of Shakespeare for which people queued through the night for tickets. Shakespeare was culture with official approval, but as one of the few alternatives to tales about earnest Soviet heroes, it was also a way for theatre directors to symbolically address forbidden issues. Going to the theatre had an excitement it perhaps lacks nowadays, says Mamontovas.

    ‘”There’s a feeling in the former Soviet Union that Shakespeare was never censored. So he becomes in a lot of these places not just a writer but almost a freedom fighter, almost a saint. If you go in to the countryside in Armenia you meet people with the name Shakespeare – their first names are Shakespeare. The most famous footballer in Armenia is Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his middle name is Hamlet. And no, Hamlet isn’t Armenian for Hamish; it’s Hamlet, the Dane. It’s incredible it’s seeped in to everything.”’

    In the Guardian, the director Richard Eyre wrote of seeing ‘Hamlet’ in Romania in Ceaucescu’s days: in an unheated theatre, ‘the audience… sat on uncomfortable seats or crouched on the edge of the stage swathed in scarves and overcoats. They were enraptured. Line after line was greeted with the applause of recognition: this was their story. Hamlet’s oppression by Claudius mirrored theirs by Ceausescu, and if Hamlet vacillated, accused himself of cowardice, cursed himself for his inaction, it only reflected their own frailty and submissiveness.

    ‘Allegory and metaphor are part of any theatre syntax but at that time in Romania they were its essential core. There was a shared language, a code in which thoughts could be spoken, ideas asserted and passions voiced; it was the only medium in which dissent could be expressed. It provided solace and inspiration, and it was not coincidence that in the 1989 revolution it was to the Hamlet, Caramitru, that students and teenagers turned for a leader and, following their example – an actor’s dream – a general, who said: “My army is at your disposal. Tell us where to go.” Following his instinct, Caramitru directed them to the TV station where, after fierce fighting, he found the TV news studio guarded by only a single Securitate man, too frightened even to raise his hand in a salute. From there he and a poet friend made an announcement to the nation: “We’re free, we’ve won. Don’t shoot anyone. Join us.”’

    I find it difficult to dismiss or feel contempt for this.

    One might read also Niels Bohr talking to Werner Heisenberg about ‘Hamlet’, and Einstein’s lament (quoted in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s ‘Plato at the Googleplex’) about what he felt to be the ignorance and insensitivity displayed by many younger scientists towards anything that could not be categorised as science.

    I am sorry that this is so long, but those who rightly complain about what they feel about the irresponsible neglect or denigration of the sciences surely have the responsibility also to acquaint themselves with the best that is being produced in other disciplines to fields of endeavour and not simply to assume without examination that what is produced there is necessarily inferior.

    Ah, not the history of science, but a scientific history: I have just started reading Lynne A. Isbell’s ‘The fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why we See so Well’, by Lynne A. Isbell. Snakes made us human!

  14. correction: ‘Or that Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”, say, is better than “King Lear” on the the same grounds.” (The works were on the wrong way round.)

  15. I have just read the interview with Matthew Cobb, and found it wonderful, particularly because of the respect he shows for disciplines like history and his awareness of the complexity of humanity and its arts and sciences.

  16. I somewhat agree that good science can be made without any profound knowledge about the history and development of your own field. However, history of science-history in general- is not only about technical development and progress but also about the motivations of scientists and theimpact of their social environment on research. Knowing these issues can be illuminating for present day scientists. For example, geneticists such as myself could benefit enormously from the study of the eugenics movement of the first decades of the twentieth century and learn about its motivations, mistakes and misinterpretations of scientific results. Furthermore, eugenics and scientific racism were, and still are- tightly linked. This is but a single example but I think illustrates my point.
    About the books, all of them are fantastically good!!!

    1. I think what Matthew may really be getting at is that you get a much more profound understanding of science if you understand the history behind it.

  17. One of the most interesting books by a non-scientist that I’ve ever read: “The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe,” by Arthur Koestler.

  18. I’m wary of humanities to the extent that they resemble religion, such as when:

    1. they proceed on assumed, untested, circular, or arbitrary premises, especially when the weakness of the premises is aligned with confidence and hostility towards criticism.

    2. they try to claim moral authority. The obvious example is that silly poster way back that suggested science tells you how to make dinos but you need the humanities to decide whether you should.

    3. they are hostile to science, especially when it ventures onto their turf and they argue that it can’t or shouldn’t. This is especially the case when they seem resistant towards actually pinning down concrete examples of how and why their field is so radically different.

    4. they extrapolate too much, say, from literature, as if a well-told allegory trumped a well-controlled clinical trial or a careful experiment.

    5. they suggest human exceptionalism.

    6. they rely more on rhetoric and non-intellectual influence. The power of anecdotes to sway more than scientific studies despite being empirically feebler is an obvious example.

    7. they trumpet the subjective over the objective, as if perception, mental processing, and behaviour were a world apart from anything studied even in biology. This ties in to point 5. as well, and isn’t too different from religion emphasizing revelation.

    8. they seem beholden to the psychology of status. This is where subject snobbery and the belittling of science comes from.

    9. they exhibit grandiose overconfidence in the importance of literature, art, etc., as if someone who wasn’t interested was on par with a murderer or an idiot.

    1. In short, when they’re arrogant, smug, and condescending. 😀

      Seriously though, nice list! Have you been working on that?

      1. No, at least not consciously.

        I mean, I’ve thought these things every now and again, but never in a systematic way. Yet, once I just now brought to mind a few overlaps with religion, the rest followed naturally. I think they stem from similar impulses, like a self-interested suspicion of clarity and public transparency, a status mentality that mixes art and virtue together, a fake expertise buoyed up by a shaky worldview, and a mystical or quasi-mystical reverence of mind-stuff (or humanity or soul or consciousness or whatever).

          1. You’re one of the “good ones,” Tim. 😉 I learn so much from you. Remember that reasonshark put a big qualification in his first sentence, “…to the extent that they resemble religion.” You’re able to make knowledgeable and thoughtful statements about the humanities without snobbery, quasi-mystical pronouncements, belittling science, or any of the other stuff shark mentions.

            I do often worry that we can sound too humanities-bashing here, but I don’t see nearly so much of that out in public, as opposed to the sort of blowhard humanities stuff one regularly sees in, say, the NYT, NYRB, etc. It’s like WEIT is our “safe space” to get things off our chests. 😉

            You, Diana, Charleen (though she seems to be in science, now), and the others with liberal arts expertise that stick it out here enrich our conversations routinely.

          2. Well, thank you, Diane. That is very nice of you. And apologies to reasonshark – whose interventions I often find admirable – if I have been overly severe.

          3. And of course, scientists can be arrogant, smug, and condescending, too. (In fact we had one here just a day or two ago.)

    2. So you think everyone in the Humanities is like this? I’ve found many people in the Humanities that comport to your list are theologians or closet theologians. And, do you mean all of the Humanities or just English Literature?

      1. So you think everyone in the Humanities is like this?

        No, of course not. I think the majority of humanities students, teachers, lecturers, etc. are honest scholars doing legitimate work in justifiable fields of study. I phrased my original point carefully. I said “to the extent that they resemble religion”, not “because the whole thing is basically religion”.

        Unfortunately, because they also delve into some complex, uncertain, and deep aspects of human life, they also have an uncomfortable ratio of dubiousness and charlatanry. That may well come from closet theologians in the midst, but it certainly afflicts the subjects more than it afflicts, say, the more hard-nosed work of physicists and astronomers. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

        Take philosophy, for example: there are some legitimately good philosophical points made on the subject of ethics, but there are also dozens of contrary positions that can’t all be right. As Ben Goren points out, the better philosophers of our time tend to have scientific leanings in their work.

    3. I’ve decided to say something. I, as you, reasonshark, seem to have, have a bit of a chip on my shoulder, having left school at 17 and worked on farms and as a labourer for five or six years, and being largely self-taught. So I do not know much about academic life in England. In Japan, I have taught at a university and now lecture at the Open University of Japan as well as work as a diction coach with singers and put on contemporary plays. I have read a lot, both about the arts and sciences (as a boy I was fascinated in entomology – and still am). I have read such scholars of painting and sculpture as E.H. Gombrich (the friend of Karl Popper), Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind & Michael Baxandall, in all of whose work science is drawn upon, I have read much about music (my wife is a pianist), I have read widely in literature and in literary scholarship and criticism, and I am interested in the work of scientists such as Aniruddh Patel who study the arts. I have written on poetry and drama for a number of periodicals, including the Chicago Review. I simply do not recognise the existence of what you are talking about in that little list you provide. What in all honesty does come across from that list is an ignorance of the arts and of good work done in the humanities (which is fine, but then you shouldn’t make the sweeping accusations you make) and a resentment of the arts, which comes out strongly in the assertion that people in the humanities regard you as a murderer or an idiot if you are not interested in them – that is to say that everyone involved in the arts and humanities is, as Diane G rather too gleefully suggested is ‘arrogant, smug and condescending’. I really do not care very much if someone is not interested in the arts, and I seriously wonder how many people do, but I do get irritated when people who obviously have little interest in the arts and humanities and small or no understanding of them assume that they are in a position, because they suppose themselves to be on the side of rationality and science, to make the kind of silly exaggerations that you indulge in here.

      1. I refer you to my reply to Diana MacPherson on the same subject, but I will at least assure you that my accusations were neither meant to be sweeping nor targeted at the whole of the arts and humanities.

        I will, however, explain that “murderer and idiot” bit, because it’s as clear as mud as it stands. I had in mind Quentin Bell’s principle of sartorial morality: basically a blending in people’s minds of status and virtue, such that high-status is (rather presumptuously) equated with virtue, and low-status with vice. Given how much art is sometimes mixed with the psychology of status, it can naturally extend to one’s artistic savviness and appreciation.

        In short, you get snobbishness. The “murderer” bit was an exaggerated way of suggesting those who don’t care for art are treated as if they had very little virtue, and the “idiot” bit was a way of suggesting low status.

        Obviously, I garbled it at some point, so let me clarify: no, I’m not saying the entire field is snobbish, nor am I saying even the majority is. I do think, however, that there’s probably a higher ratio of these types in the arts and humanities than in the sciences, and that there is a sense that the arts and humanities psychologically lend themselves towards such snobbery in a way that, say, physics wouldn’t. This is a tentative statistical claim, I admit, and it is not intended to be sweeping.

        For my part, I regard the arts and humanities as an extension of science, at least in the broadly construed sense, which is why I disagree strongly with types like Leon Wieseltier, as here:

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