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Book Review : Examining an Age When Science Had the Answers

January 06, 1987|LEE DEMBART

The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the 19th Century by David Knight (Blackwell: $24.95)

People in this century (perhaps in many centuries) have tended to see themselves as modern and to regard those who came before as mere prologue to the main event, which is now.

This is particularly true in science, and with good reason. There are more scientists alive now than have lived in all history up to now. Both the amount of new knowledge and the kind of new knowledge produced in the 20th Century overshadow the work of earlier times.

But, says David Knight, a British historian of science, the real "Age of Science" was not the 20th Century but the 19th. A tremendous amount of very good science was done then, Knight says in "The Age of Science," his interesting if scholarly history of science (principally in Europe) in the 1800s. What's more, he says, the current institutional structure of science was put into place in the last century. That's when science became the organized activity it is today.

Unbridled Optimism

Still, if it were just a matter of counting up the scientific accomplishments of each century, the 20th would win the title hands down. What gives the title to the 19th Century, Knight argues, is the unbridled optimism that prevailed then about the power of science to know and to do. Many inventions we now hardly think of as special--such as the telegraph and its instantaneous communication over long distances--were miraculous in their day. They gave people the idea and the confidence that there was nothing that science could not achieve. Certainty was the hallmark of 19th Century science.

In the 20th Century, we know better. For all that science has done, we are much more humble now about what it can do. Science, we now know, has both theoretical and practical limits. It cannot know everything, and it cannot accomplish everything.

To make his case on behalf of the 19th Century, Knight fashions a detailed, anecdotal and engaging history of each of the sciences at that time. The word scientist was added to the language in the 1830s. In astronomy, cosmic distances were first measured in 1838. In chemistry, Dmitry Mendeleev published the Periodic Table of the elements in 1869. In physics, J. J. Thompson discovered the electron in 1897. And in biology, of course, there was Darwin.

The camera, which was able to take pictures through microscopes and telescopes, became an important tool of biology and astronomy. The 19th-Century camera also gives us our first photographs of scientists. (Lord Kelvin, Knight tells us, is among the first scientists whose voice we can still hear. It is preserved in a primitive recorder at Glasgow University.)

Worthwhile Task

Knight has done a worthwhile task in gathering this information and putting it into its cultural and historical context for general readers. It's too bad that his prose is flatter than his material, which makes this story less compelling than it could have been.

History of science buffs are sure to learn much that they did not know about important advances in many fields that make contemporary science possible. Others may find the subject somewhat arcane.

Knight focuses not just on the major themes and developments but on the minor ones as well. There are many tidbits in his catalogue--the invention of the radiometer, which is now little more than a schoolroom toy, for example. In this way, Knight's approach is more than a little reminiscent of Daniel Boorstin's approach in his monumental history of knowledge, "The Discoverers." But Boorstin's book is fascinating while Knight's is not. And reading Boorstin might lead someone to conclude that every century was "The Age of Science."

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