Science: A Four Hundred Page Hissy-Fit
by Norman J. Levitt
Imagine a biography of Mozart grimly intent on debunking its subject. It points out that he had an unhealthy interest in scatological jokes, demeaned women in Cosi fan tutte, black men in Die Zauberflote and poor peasants in Don Giovanni. He was a spendthrift and preyed on his friends’ generosity, while thinking himself superior to any of his fellow-musicians. He garnered praise and glory in Vienna while leaving his equally talented sister to languish in the provinces as their father’s housekeeper. He exploited the underpaid talents of performing musicians, copyists, and a host of other menials to realize his work and put it before the wealthy public. He curried the favor of a decadent hereditary nobility in a crumbling and oppressive empire. Furthermore, he borrowed a lot of his themes from folk-music without acknowledgment. To think of him as a singular genius, then, is obviously wrongheaded, since practically anyone can whistle or hum a tune and even improvise on it without depending on his examples. He is cited shamelessly by the reigning elite as a prime example of western cultural superiority in an attempt to intimidate the masses and to justify the continuing hegemony of capitalist high culture. However, we oughtn’t to patronize those ordinary people who prefer hip-hop to Mozart; they’re just embracing unorthodox (by upper-class standards) but equally valid esthetic values. In sum, there’s no reason whatever to idolize Mozart, and we ought to cast a suspicious eye on those who do.
Mutatis mutandis, the British historian of science Patricia Fara has written a book that treats its own vast subject — science and the history of its development — in a similarly contemptuous and condescending way. Fara’s case reposes on the twin shaky pillars of epistemological relativism and self-ascribed political righteousness. It is outlandishly Pecksniffian in tone and substance. She has an appallingly cavalier attitude toward evidence and documentation. She argues by means of flat assertion and unsupported generalization, sins, one assumes, she would never let her callowest undergraduates get away with. When I read a book, however closely, my marginal notations are usually brief and infrequent. Not so in the case of Science: A Four Thousand Year History; my copy is crammed with notes to myself, most of them pointing out the author’s grotesque gaffes. Imprecision reigns on every page; inaccuracies, irrelevancies, omissions, anachronisms, errors, and outright howlers go galumphing through the text with the author’s blithe acquiescence. Here I group the conceptual defects thematically.
Science in Alien Cultures
Fara begins her book with an attempt to show that science is not a western European monopoly; rather, she claims, societies built on vastly different cultures than our own have devised ways to systematize knowledge, some of which are echoed in our own scientific practice, while others strike off in different philosophical and methodological directions. She surveys the scientific and technological achievements of Babylon, China, and the Islamic World (Arab and Persian). Given her aim of showing some kind of parity of ancient and modern peoples in respect to epistemic dignity, there are some surprising omissions here. Egypt is not mentioned, nor Rome, with its audacious engineering. The pre-Columbian cultures of the western hemisphere go unmentioned as well, notwithstanding the mathematical, astronomical, and calendrical accomplishments of the Maya, the architectural splendors of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, and the unsurpassed craftsmanship of the Inca. Worst of all, India is entirely ignored, despite the well-known fact that decimal arithmetic and the notion of zero were discovered there before spreading to Islamic and Christian civilizations, and despite the more profound, if lesser-known fact, that the mathematical culture of India was the deepest and most insightful in the world before the Renaissance took hold in Europe.
Even the societies that command Fara’s attention are treated superficially and with little attention to vital detail. The most stunning mathematical achievement of the Babylonians (so far as we know) is the compilation of tables of Pythagorean triples of integers, which suggests some kind of acquaintance with the Pythagorean theorem, at least empirically. Fara ignores it. The enormous technological ingenuity of China in the first millennium AD is sketchily alluded to, but without any clear idea of how China may have conceptualized the principles that its technology implemented. Moreover, the mathematical learning of Chinese adepts — deeper and more incisive than is generally recognized — is simply ignored. Islamic scientific culture is praised, but in a vague and approximate way that gives the reader no real grasp of what it actually accomplished in mathematics, physics, and astronomy.
When it comes to Greece — Hellenic and Hellenistic science — Fara’s tone changes altogether, since Greece in the conventional view stands godfather to post-medieval western culture, and therefore must be viewed as tainted. Fara’s basic method is to throw around a few well-known names, but with a dismissive agenda clearly delineated. The most stunning of Greek intellectual achievements, the invention of the axiomatic method and synthetic geometry for example, goes completely unmentioned. The name of the possibly mythical sage Pythagoras gets thrown about at some length, but without any account of the famous theorem nor of the even more stunning discovery, still resonant in contemporary debates over the nature of mathematical entities, of the irrationality of √2, a discovery ascribed, rightly or not, to the Pythagorean school (but in any case Greek). Plato’s cosmology, expounded in the Timaeus, and the source of the designation “Platonic” for the five regular solids, is also absent, despite its notable attempt at constructing a version of chemistry.
Worst of all, however, is the treatment of the great Archimedes, so far as we know the most powerful intellect of the pre-modern world. Saith Fara, “Archimedes was neither a scientist nor a technologist, since no such people existed when he was living in Sicily during the third century BCE.” This exhibits a rather witless eagerness to confuse nomenclature with reality. Archimedes is characterized as more concerned with “ingenious gadgets that would demonstrate mathematical principles” than with practical engineering. This rather perversely ignores his well-attested fame as a military engineer of matchless ingenuity. But even if we ignore this point, we are still left with an (all too brief) account of Archimedes that tells us nothing whatever of what this greatest of ancient mathematicians and physicists actually achieved: the “method of exhaustion,” anticipating modern notions of limit and infinite series and applied to the computation of geometric quantities; the calculation of the volume and surface area of the sphere and many other geometric objects; a precise method for approximating π, a deep understanding of leverage, buoyancy and the optics of mirrors, etc. Fara doesn’t deign to discuss any of this. Why?
I conclude that two things haunt and terrify Fara. One is mathematics; over and over, she evades having to deal with mathematical ideas, the very core of scientific progress. I shall mention several more examples below. But even more unacceptable is the very notion of genius (without which it is impossible to talk sensibly about Archimedes, inter alia). She seems to regard the very idea of genius as an imposture, a myth designed to cow the ordinary run of humanity, especially women, workers, and non-westerners. By contrast, the book is full of feminist sniping that exalts relatively minor and marginal figures in the history of science, while one could compile an extensive list (I have done so) of notable geniuses who go unmentioned or are referred to in a scant sentence or two.
Most notably, one key figure seems to be missing from this account: Sir Isaac Newton. “Although Newton was undoubtedly a brilliant man, eulogies of a lone genius fail to match events,” claims Fara. A previous book of hers, Newton: The Making of a Genius, has an ironic title: the point is that Newton, as we now conceive of him, was the product of a long and unremitting campaign of cultural propaganda designed to demonstrate the unassailable superiority of British and western learning. Fara’s assertions are all too easy to prove if one resorts to the simple strategy of systematically ignoring what Newton did and how he did it.
The image of Newton as a solitary and isolated figure is all too well-attested anecdotally to be reasonably challenged. As to his being a genius by any definition, we have the evidence, not only of the invention of the calculus and the grand synthesis of Principia Mathematica, but of his dazzling array of other mathematical and scientific breakthroughs, for instance, his work on the characterization of algebraic curves in the plane, his method for counting and determining the roots of arbitrary functions, his investigations of infinite series, and his solution in a scant few hours of the brachistichrone problem, which had taken Leibniz six months to crack.
Also absent is any account of Newton’s achievement in optics — his analysis of the compound nature of light and his invention of the reflecting telescope (the original instrument was built with his own hands). Fara doesn’t give us even the briefest account of the chronology, let alone the intellectual content, of these achievements. There is nothing about Newton’s relations with his teacher Isaac Barrow nor with his rival Gottfried Leibniz (who scarcely figures in this book). We see nothing about the growing interest in the central force problem, the role of Hooke in spurring Newton to divulge what he knew of celestial mechanics, the appearance of De Motu (the work that initially set forth the essential facts about orbital motion) or the crucial calculation showing that spherical planets could be regarded as point masses without loss of rigor.
All we are told is that Newton was some kind of mystical alchemist who somehow stumbled on crucial cosmological truths, a medieval mage and alchemist rudely transported into the dawn of the Enlightenment. Even here, the most salient of Newton’s doctrinal eccentricities, his anti-Trinitarianism, goes unmentioned, though it is crucial to understanding his isolation. All we are left with is a comical figure appropriate for mockery.
Fara’s treatment of Einstein is even more contemptuous. Noting that Einstein “became a household name,” she asserts, caustically, that “it seems less clear that he deserved such accolades.” Einstein, she thinks, wrapped himself in the aura of “a supernatural genius who had created a theory incomprehensible to mere mortals.” But in Fara’s world, remember, no geniuses are allowed, particularly when they rely on the mystifications of mathematics. It is rather curious that she seeks to demonstrate her point by reproducing a picture of an unerased blackboard on which Einstein jotted down some formulas (having to do with the age of the universe, it appears.) “For most people,” she declares, “the equations are meaningless squiggles.” She has picked a poor example; these particular equations can easily be conned by anyone who is not a complete washout in an elementary calculus course. Fara can’t be bothered with such troublesome details.
Fara’s exposition of the gist of relativity theory is brief, but also incoherent. The reader will learn nothing from it. There are, of course, technical gaffes as well. The General Theory of Relativity, she asserts, demonstrates that “space travelers will return to find themselves younger than the friends they left behind on Earth.” But the “twin paradox” occurs in Special Relativity, that is to say, in flat Minkowski space. Since Fara has an undergraduate physics degree there is no excuse for such sloppiness.
Worst of all, her account of the genesis of relativity is, to put it bluntly, sheer rot. “[Einstein’s] arcane theory was rooted in the practical problems of clock coordination under the nineteenth century regime of precision,” she claims. Well, no. In the first place, nineteenth-century practical problems of clock coordination can be handled perfectly well by classical physics, as relativity itself demonstrates. They occur on a scale where relativity essentially reduces to classical physics, for all practical purposes. But, more important, we have an excellent record of the cogitations that led Einstein to his celebrated result.
Most significant is the gedanken experiment Einstein devised in his teens in which he imagined what would be perceived by an observer riding a light beam. This is, in fact, a picturesque epitome of the fact that Maxwell’s equations setting out the basic principles of electromagnetic radiation (e.g., light), unlike Newton’s equations governing mechanics, are not invariant under Galilean change of coordinate. This can be demonstrated less colorfully by mathematical analysis. Yet one would expect Maxwell’s (well confirmed) equations to be just as fundamental to physics as Newton’s. How to resolve the dilemma? Other theorists were well aware of the problem but, unlike them, Einstein summarily rejected ad hoc solutions and went to the heart of the matter. He simply assumed that the equations of mechanics had to be revised so as to become, like Maxwell’s equations, “Lorentz invariant.” The result is relativity theory, which preserves classical physics as a “limiting case” that applies to situations where velocities are low.
Is all this a leap of genius by a solitary thinker? Of course! But Fara will none of it. No geniuses allowed! For her, even the most brilliant scientist is at root a run-of-the-mill artisan who can talk a good game to mystify the masses.
Elision, Distortion, Conflation
Fara simply glides past episodes that might seem central to any coherent account of the development of modern sciences. For example, there is virtually no mention of titanic figures like Euler and Gauss, of Lagrange and Hamilton, of Riemann and Poincare, of Boltzmann and Mach. Her account of quantum mechanics is pathetically barren of salient fact. The usual sequence of epochal developments — Planck’s introduction of the notion of discrete “light quanta” to resolve anomalies in the spectrum of black-body radiation, the inconsistency of the naive model of the atom with the facts of electrodynamics, Einstein’s resolution of the conundrum of the photoelectric effect, Bohr’s quantized model of the hydrogen atom, the Stern-Gerlach experiment, the ultimate emergence of the Heisenberg-Schrodinger formalism for a generalized quantum mechanics — all of this goes unmentioned. It seems that Fara is only interested in quantum theory to the extent that if affords a half-baked justification for moaning about a miasmal “uncertainty” that supposedly pervades modern culture. Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics get a similar silent treatment. As for Lord Kelvin, he is “best known for laying the transatlantic telegraph cable.” Really? What happened to thermodynamic absolute zero and the Kelvin temperature scale ubiquitous in physical science?
Darwin, of course, gets clobbered, with Fara trotting out all sorts of silly canards that were put to rest long ago. I spare you the details. Likewise, Pasteur gets a quick once-over that buries his major achievements in discovering the etiology of infectious disease, as well as practical methods for dealing with such afflictions by means of vaccination.
As for engineers and designers whose talents rose to the level of genius, don’t look for them here either, despite the author’s avowed intention to bring to the fore the economic and nationalistic substrate of science and technology. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Augustus Roebling, Nikola Tesla, Lee de Forest, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, et al. — you won’t find them here.
Fara often wants to discuss religion and spirituality as an ostensible motivation for scientific work. Thus, she blithely assumes that supporters of the “Big Bang” model in the 1950s were pretty much uniformly theists who thirsted for proof of a creator god, as opposed to the backers of Hoyle’s “steady state, continuous creation of matter” model, who are presumed to be scoffers. What can one say of such a tissue of nonsense, unsupported by any direct evidence, especially in the face of the fact that opinion swung almost instantly and unanimously in favor of the Big Bang when Penzias and Wilson discovered the 3°K black-body radiation predicted by Big Bang theorists?
Fara also has the habit of conflating rather disparate and unrelated scientific themes. Thus there is a parallel portrayal of the effect of Einstein’s science and Freud’s pseudoscience. There seems to be little point to this, other than to provide a backdoor excuse for an anemic vindication of the “Viennese witch doctor,” as Nabokov has shrewdly tagged him. Cosmology and plate tectonics are declared to be intimately related: “Earth scientists were taking space environments into account” (true enough) “and cosmologists required geological expertise for analysing other-world rocks for traces of life.” Say what?! What happened to hyperinflation, structure in the early universe, cold dark matter, the recrudescence of the cosmological constant, and so forth? Looking at Martian geology for hints of life is fascinating, but has nothing to do with cosmology as the term is unanimously understood.
We get a short account of Alan Turing, but as a supposed computer wonk avant la lettre. Fara’s account of the celebrated “Turing test” is quite unsatisfactory. She seems merely to want to sneer at the materialist assumption that “mind is what brain does” underlying Turing’s proposal. Far worse, she says nothing about the deep connections between Turing’s work on idealized “universal” computers and Gödel’s epochal incompleteness theorem. (Gödel doesn’t appear, of course — that would be another embarrassing lone-wolf genius to contend with.) Turing is, however, linked to that now-forgotten quasi-charlatan, Marshall McLuhan, make of that what you will.
Naturally there is a brief excursion into feminist readings of biology. Fara trots out the shopworn myth that, prior to the emergence of feminist insight, embryologists were enmired in the patriarchal delusion that the ovum is a quiescent, passive entity on which the active and adventurous sperm homes in. Alas, I’ve seen this one before. It is a prime example of the self-serving mythology of academic feminists on the lookout for edifying tales of valorous feminist critique cutting away the complacent myths of the male establishment. The main problem with the account, sadly, is that it is palpably untrue, as is clear to anyone inclined to pay attention to hard evidence.
In truth, Fara’s bag of tricks seems inexhaustible, but one wearies of sorting through it all. Her work comes down to a pretext for sneering at scientists living and dead and waxing indignant over the primacy of science in modern society. The only thing to be thankful for is that Fara eschews the dismal ju-ju of postmodern “theory,” and we don’t have to contend with Michel Foucault stomping through the pages, lamenting in gloomy and convoluted Gallicisms the hegemonic episteme imposed by science.
Resentment Locked and Loaded
On second thought, however, one is driven to conclude that the kind of resentment that actuates Foucault, or at least his countless admirers, in his distaste for science lies at the root of Fara’s extended jeremiad. The same might be said of most academics for whom a surly attitude toward science has become a de rigueur appurtenance to their quasi-political stance and their social outlook. Let’s face it: in terms of power and value to a modern industrial state, the natural sciences tower over all other forms of intellectual activity. This is an unhappy fact for humanists to face; some do so gracefully, but, to the surprise of no student of human nature, many find their way into some rationale for disparaging or dismissing science. Nowadays, this resentment is conjoined with a reflexively egalitarian world-view that disdains the idea that some rare individuals are creative or insightful through faculties that we ordinary mortals simply don’t share. Also in play is a more explicitly political doctrine grounded in shame and regret for what western society has inflicted on myriad other cultures in the course of establishing its world-girdling dominion, a process in which science and technology had a crucial role.
The fulminant ichor of that resentment is the life’s-blood of this book. To the extent that she persuades readers to see things her way, Fara relies of “proof by intimidation”: if one does not go along with her tendentious assertions, one must be Eurocentric, patriarchal, and terribly, terribly out of fashion. Her sympathy for victims of Western greed and lust for power leads her into outright epistemic relativism. If various civilizations failed, despite impressive isolated achievements, to develop a fully scientific world view that’s okay with Fara, because, what the hell, they were following their bliss and, anyway, the search for Absolute Truth is chimerical. She writes a long chapter on objectivity, stressing the impossibility of achieving it, a sentiment that echoes throughout the rest of the text as well. But she fatally ignores the countervailing corrective: if ideal objectivity is impossible, failing to strive for it is nonetheless scientific suicide. She is relentlessly ferocious in pressing her claim that scientists inevitably cherry-pick their evidence in order to bolster theories to which they are committed in advance, often for ideological or frankly venal reasons rather than scientific intuition. Yet such cherry-picking is the heart and soul of her methodology, such as it is. This book dispenses, one notes, with most of the standard scholarly apparatus. The text cries out for frequent and specific citations, but they are nowhere to be found. The few endnote references that appear are to secondary literature and are completely unhelpful. Only a thin trickle of evidence, and that mostly misleading, is allowed to speak.
In the end, however, Fara and those who admire her aren’t the problem. Plenty of wretched books written by authors who are in over their heads appear every year; vanity presses turn such titles out by the bushel-basket. No, the trouble is really institutional and all too deeply rooted. To put it impudently and without any leavening of charity, what in the world is a meager scholar like Fara doing on Newton’s home turf, Cambridge? And what is a venerable institution like the Oxford University Press doing in putting its imprimatur on this tiresome volume? Truly, the dreaming spires seem very unstable at this point and it is hard to find a reason to believe that better times are around the corner.