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Ingenious Pursuits by Lisa Jardine

Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution - Lisa Jardine

This is an interesting and intelligent book about the early Enlightenment, focused on England in the late 17th century. It is arranged topically and covers a number of subjects that were important to science at the time: astronomy; the invention of the microscope; architecture, relevant because of the math involved; scientific instruments and the improving of clocks so as to make meaningful measurements possible; anatomy; botany and the European craze for collecting specimens from around the world; medicine and the often dangerous remedies scientists tested on themselves (along with some experiments that were way ahead of their time, such as blood transfusion, which wasn’t particularly successful since it was attempted from animals to humans); the problem of how to measure longitude; the relationship between astronomy and cartography and consequent improvement in the accuracy of maps. It’s very readable, not as long as it appears due to a lot of illustrations, and definitely expanded my knowledge a bit.

The book is not a biography of anyone in particular (I came to it after The Age of Wonder and was a little disappointed in that at first, though admittedly, this one is appreciably shorter and probably contains more actual science history as a result). But it does spend some time with some of the biggest influences on the English science scene at the time, such as Newton, Hooke, and Halley, as well as paying attention to the context in which they worked. Discussion of some weird aspects of scientific culture at the time—such as the way some people would publish results in codes or anagrams so that they could later claim to have published first, while actually keeping their precious knowledge to themselves—was particularly interesting. The idea of scientific collaboration was new, and the German-born secretary of the Royal Society was even arrested for spying based on his scientific correspondence with foreigners.

I don’t love that this book, like most popular histories of science available in English, is very Anglo- and Eurocentric, and doesn’t acknowledge much contribution from anyone else. Also, despite being written by a woman, it has little to say about women in science—the one who is discussed, Maria Sibylla Merian, is presented as if she were an artist only. I also would have liked to see the book go more into depth on many of the topics and people discussed. That said, I learned from it and found it accessible. It is better and more comprehensive than the other books I’ve found on this time period.