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Roger Bacon: The First Scientist – Brian Clegg ***
* UPDATED * for Kindle edition – note original hardback has different cover and was called The First Scientist
Roger Bacon takes us back to thirteenth-century Europe, to the early years of the great universities, where learning was spiced with the danger of mob violence and a terrifyingly repressive religious censorship. Roger Bacon, a humble and devout English friar (not to be confused with the Elizabethan/Jacobean politician and philosopher Francis Bacon), seems an unlikely figure to challenge the orthodoxy of his day – yet this unworldly man risked his life to establish the basis for true scientific knowledge.
Born around 1220, Bacon was passionately interested in the natural world and how things worked. Banned from writing on such dangerous topics by his Order, it was only when a new Pope proved sympathetic that he began compiling his encyclopaedia of knowledge, on everything from optics to alchemy – the synopsis took him a year and ran to 800,000 words, but he was never to complete the work itself. Sadly, the enlightened Pope died before he could read Bacon’s remarkable work, and Bacon was tried as a magician and incarcerated for ten years.
Legend transformed Bacon into a sorcerer, ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, yet he taught that all magic was fraudulent, based on human ability to deceive, and we can recognise today that his books were the first flowering of the scientific knowledge that would transform our world. He advanced the understanding of optics, he demanded a new calendar that prefigured the Gregorian reform, made geographical breakthroughs later used by Columbus, predicted everything from horseless carriages to the telescope, and stressed the importance of mathematics to science, a significance that would not be recognized for 400 years. Yet his biggest contribution was to link science and experiment, to insist that a study of the natural world by observation and exact measurement was the surest foundation for truth.
Up to now all the books about Bacon have been academic texts that were frankly less than exciting and readable. This is much more a work of popular science, though it is almost inevitable that a work on Bacon will have something of an academic feel, hence the low score in stars. Even so it gives a fascinating picture of life in a medieval university, and uncovers a man whose ideas on science have been hidden to most by years of myth and ignorance.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.
When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.
Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …
I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.
This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.
The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.
This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…
I am delighted that one of our reviewers has been able to give a five star review to Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book. The astrophysicist has taken over Carl Sagan's old post as the number one science populariser in the US, but his written output in the past has been patchy, to say the least.
There have been at least two significant problems. One is dubious history of science. For example, in the cases of both Galileo and Bruno he has passed on undiluted the comic book version of history where Galileo is persecuted for mentioned heliocentricity (rather than his disastrous political handling of the pope) and mutters 'Eppur si muove!' at his trial, and Bruno is burned at the stake for his advanced scientific ideas (both misrepresentations). Some argue that it getting history of science accurate doesn't matter if we get the right message about science across - but if we are prepared to distort historical data, why should anyone take scientific data seriously?