Lost science

Kitty Ferguson

Why I looked at this book

I'm interested in the history of science, and so I thought this book would be worth a try - hopefully it will be an entertaining read. After reading a lot of history of science books, particularly those aimed at a general readership, one can find they tend to go over the same material. This may well provide something a bit different from what I've read before.

First impressions

Unfortunately there is no sample available for this book, so this impression is based on reading the preface. The blurb seems to suggest that this book is about scientists who have been forgotten by history, but, as Ferguson points out, its hard to claim that someone has been forgotten and then find a decent amount of interesting information about them. In fact I would say that half of the 10 people the book deals with are reasonably well known, so it looks like it is more about scientific episodes which are not commonly known. Certainly though, the subject of the first chapter, Ferdinand Verbiest and his adventures in the court of the Chinese emperor, are new to me.

Main review

Many chapters of the book are about a scientist who had an idea which for one reason or another struggled to become accepted by the mainstream of scientists. Joule gets the credit for the idea of the conservation of energy despite Benjamin Thompson putting forward similar ideas many years before. Milutin Milankovich promoted the idea that solar cycles have an effect on the Earth's climate, in particular with respect to ice ages, but in his lifetime the data seemed to disagree with this - it was only later that it was seen that it could actually explain a lot. And Barry Sterman's ideas on biofeedback looked very promising, somehow became linked with not quite respectable alternative medicine rather than the mainstream (there's a suggestion that this was encouraged by drugs companies who saw less profit in a drug free treatment).

In several chapters it is clear that a scientist struggled to gain recognition because she was a woman in a man's world. Maria Sibylla Merian did significant work on metamorphosis, but it the effort she put into illustrating her investigations meant that they were seen more as works of art, and so easier to dismiss as valid research. Lise Meitner played a major role in the discovery of nuclear fission, but because she had to flee the Nazi regime in Germany it was easy for others to take the credit.

Johannes Kepler is well known, but the chapter on his story of a voyage to the moon had insightful information on how careful you needed to be when dealing with the Church in the 16th Century. Alfred Russell Wallace is well known too, as a co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. Most of the credit went to Darwin though, which might be thought reasonable given the years of work he put into the concept. But then Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche put a lot of effort into observing the transits of Venus in the 1760s, but is less well known for this than James Cook and Joseph Banks, for whom it seems the observations were just a small part of their careers.

So not all of the ten scientists dealt with in the book really qualify as forgotten, but it is an entertaining read, as well as showing that who gets credit for scientific ideas can be something of a lottery and how the progress of science isn't always as smooth as it might seem.
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