Cover image for A brief history of science : as seen through the development of scientific instruments
A brief history of science : as seen through the development of scientific instruments
Crump, Thomas.
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Publication Information:
New York, NY : Carroll & Graf Publishers, [2001]

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xxi, 425 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 25 cm
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Q125 .C78 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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From the gnomons and sundials of ancient times to the 26-kilometer underground particle accelerator of the twenty-first century, this fascinating and enlightening volume by mathematician and anthropologist Thomas Crump shows how science has continually redefined the world's horizons, extended the frontiers of knowledge, and advanced human civilization. With sixteen pages of photographs, and vivid vignettes of scientists and their inventions, Crump guides readers through early attempts to measure time and space--from astronomical charts and calendars to Arabic numerals and algebraic notation--before he examines the birth of an essentially modern technology in the 1600s. With Galileo's telescopic exploration of the skies at the beginning of the seventeenth century and Newton's experiments with the prism and light at its end, the optical instruments fundamental to all scientific research had been invented. Crump then proceeds to electromagnets, cathode tubes, thermometers, vacuum pumps, X rays, accelerators, semiconductors, microprocessors, and instruments currently being designed to operate in subzero temperatures. Here, then, in an accessible, succinctly narrated volume, is the enduring human quest for knowledge through technology. Here, too, is the proof that what is knowable is, and has always been, far more compelling than what is known. "[Crump] provides lively summaries of the progress in different fields, and succeeds in breathing new life into familiar stories."--The Economist "Fascinating reading."--Publishers Weekly

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Potential readers should follow the author's lead and ignore the subtitle of this survey of the history of science in Europe and America, or they may be disappointed. Amsterdam-based writer Crump (Solar Eclipse; The Anthropology of Numbers) does discuss the evolution of scientific equipment, but the book is centered around the scientists, not their instruments. Crump begins with mankind's discovery of how to create fire and ends with SQUIDs, superconducting quantum interference devices. In between, there is chemistry, astronomy and 20th-century physics. The sections on advances in electricity and energy measurement make for particularly fascinating reading. Overall, however, Crump's book would have been more successful if he had followed the lead of his subtitle. He attempts to cover too much, and inevitably there are striking gaps and imbalances that leave the final product feeling scattered. (Only a few paragraphs are devoted to radio and redshift, for instance, while Crump dallies over Wernher von Braun's experiences at the end of World War II.) It might be argued that English scientists receive more attention than those of other countries, although the adept sketch of Dmitri Mendeleyev's career should be required reading for chemistry students. Crump's prose is generally reader-friendly, and mathematical and chemical notation are kept to a minimum. This will make a useful addition to home libraries. 16 pages of photographs and appendixes not seen by PW. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One From the mastery of fire to science in antiquity We cannot too carefully recognise that science started with the organisation of ordinary experiences. A. N. Whitehead Science and the human mind The early history of science relates to the general study of preliterate thought, which is pre-eminently the domain of the anthropologist, as is reflected by the title of Claude Lévi-Strauss's classic La pensée sauvage . At this stage, the limitations of human physiology are critical. Whatever the sum of objective knowledge, it must be subject to what can be perceived with the five senses. The starting point must always be what humankind can see, hear, touch, taste or smell, and in practice the world both of the individual and the culture to which he or she belongs is defined, overwhelmingly, by sight and sound. The one adjunct which distinguishes Homo sapiens sapiens from all other species is the power of speech. Whatever achievements have been noted or instilled by science in members of other species, we may take it that speech, in any form useful for science, is 'uniquely human'. In the long run, the power of speech overcomes all the limitations on the range of what can be perceived by the senses. What is more, as the Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) showed in his classic Thought and Language , the basis of all human thought (except that of very young children) is linguistic. Even the cleverest laboratory primates, benefiting from years of intensive private tuition given by human instructors, hardly reach the stage at which children's thought begins to develop the adult forms demonstrated by Vygotsky. These pampered primates give a new twist to the meaning of the term 'educationally subnormal'.     For humankind, what is remembered is just as important as what is perceived. What the child first has to remember is the language spoken in its immediate circle. The human predisposition for language is debatable, but the publication in 1957 of Noam Chomsky's seminal book, Syntactic Structures , ensured its place as an active field for research. In any case, whatever obstacles a child faces in learning its mother tongue, it will be proficient at a very young age -- four or five years old. That is, the process of communicating the contents of a local culture to a child can start at a very early stage, and this is what defines the world as it seen by any small local population. This is the starting point for any investigation into its potential for science.     Both language and topography confine the populations we are looking at to a very restricted domain. We grow up knowing of the existence of a wide range of habitats, from the snow of the Arctic to tropical rain forests, across desert and mountain, knowing at the same time that the vast oceans are no barrier to visiting any of them. The preliterate population, on the other hand, with no access to the media or any of the mains services we take for granted, knows little about what the world is like on the other side of the mountain range or across the ocean on its doorstep. Outside their own familiar territory, those belonging to any traditional local culture will sooner or later encounter other people, speaking incomprehensible languages and with unfamiliar customs, so it is better to stay at home and like Candide cultivate one's own garden. This was how things were for the entirety of the world's population until some 7000-odd years ago, and still are for remarkably many people in today's developing countries. What do these people then do about science, especially without any of the means for keeping the records that are indispensable to science as we know it?     The natural habitat is a preoccupation of any small-scale society, particularly in the absence of any but the smallest human settlements. Whatever the beginnings of science, they are to be found in contexts where observers had nature on their doorstep. The problem then is that the natural scene simply conveys too much information: this is where the difference between seeing and perceiving is so important. To understand what this involves requires a digression into the physiology of perception. This will concentrate on sight, because of all the senses it is the only one that is absolutely indispensable in coming to terms with the world around us. (We will later look also at the part played by hearing.)     An individual's field of vision can be defined in two stages: first, it consists of the whole of that part of the environment which transmits light, generally by reflection from a recognised source such as the sun, to his eyes; second, it consists of what he consciously perceives, which is that part of the whole to which his attention, consciously or subconsciously, is directed. What David Hyndman has to tell of the Wopkaimin of New Guinea (who number only 700) is true of almost any population: Their behaviour is highly affected by that portion of the environment they actually perceive. They cannot absorb and retain the visually infinite amount of environmental information that impinges on them daily. Their culture acts as a perceptual filter screening out most information in a very selective manner ... Through mental mapping they acquire a sense of place by acquiring and storing essential information about their everyday spatial environment and using it to decide where to go, how to get there, and what to do with it. The retina can be taken to be the interface between the two stages mentioned above. On one side is the impact of light focused by the lens of the eye; on the other side are the neural signals transmitted to the visual cortex, the part of the brain concerned with sight. The retina is a complex of a very large number of rods and cones, sensitive to light: in humans the cones, which are receptive to bright light, divide into three categories, each sensitive to light at different wavelengths. This gives us colour vision.     The inherent nature of the retina imposes two severe limitations on the power of observation. First, the fact that the number of rods and cones is finite places a critical lower limit on the size of any part of the field of vision capable of providing a stimulus in such a way that a signal is then transmitted to the brain. This defines, irrevocably the limit to the power of resolution, such as is tested by an optician's eye-chart. Quite simply, objects that are too small cannot be observed by the naked eye. Without some way of breaking through this barrier, a whole universe of micro-phenomena is closed to human knowledge. This is why the invention of the microscope around the beginning of the seventeenth century is so critical in the history of science (as Chapter 2 will explain). Second, the fact that the neural signals take the form of discrete pulses means that any phenomenon to be visible must last for a finite time -- measured in milliseconds. Phenomena that are too transitory, such as the trajectory of a bullet, will simply not be observed, at least not directly. Recording such phenomena had to await the invention of photography in the 1830s and other more sophisticated technology in the years since then.     The stage now reached in the argument is that, outside the world's literate cultures, the range of observations essential to science is severely constrained by the limitations both of the habitat of any local population, which may be cultural, natural or geophysical, and of human physiology, particularly as it relates to vision. This statement is true both historically and anthropologically. Moreover, without writing, the accumulation, development and, above all, diffusion of knowledge become extremely difficult.     None the less the natural world still provides the raw material for many different branches of science -- geology, zoology, botany, meteorology, and so on -- and in its own way a local culture will incorporate them. Each one will have a distinctive content and range of application. Zoology and botany illustrate this point in different ways.     Zoology, based on the observation of the lives of animals, is largely based on intermittent phenomena that make systematic observation very difficult. Except for domestic animals, a culture without zoos (a recent historical development) will have to be content with chance observation of certain facets of the life of any fauna. It is surprising not only how much a culture can attribute to an animal that is seldom observed but also how often such attributions are false. The anthropological record contains any number of instances.     Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has a statue of a pelican pecking at its breast to produce blood to feed its young. This evokes the Christian sacrifice, in which the wine offered in the mass represents the blood of Christ and the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross. The symbolism, and its relation to the body of Christ, hardly requires any exegesis. The behaviour of the pelican implicit in this medieval iconography is totally false: this is not how pelicans, or any other species of fauna, feed their young. No matter: the symbolism is much more important than the science in any primitive Christian culture. The self-sacrifice of the pelican feeding its young was recognised throughout medieval Europe.     Not only are the presumed habits of the pelican characteristic of prehistoric zoology, but the same is true of their symbolic use. Even in our own popular culture many an animal is the basis for particular attributes -- as reflected in such adjectives as foxy, feline, bovine -- and just think what it means to call someone a 'rat' or a 'shark'. This is not very helpful to an objective science of zoology.     When it comes to plants, the position is rather different. Plants are rooted in the ground, and have limited defences against humans who interfere with them. (Stinging nettles and poison ivy are the exception rather than the rule.) Local plants can be studied at leisure, and their changes in the course of the year are well known. (As I sit at my computer I can see the maple tree in my garden just coming into leaf.) To a degree they can be subject matter for a cult: just go to Japan in the spring and observe the almost ecstatic popular reaction to cherry trees in blossom.     The plant world is more than just a spectacle. It is a resource to be exploited for food, fuel and material for making almost anything -- clothes, paints and dyes, tools, houses, containers, and medicine. Scientific knowledge, according to any of the definitions at the beginning of this chapter, is implicit in such exploitation of the environment. Once again, local knowledge is often mistaken, a point well illustrated by the question of edible fungi in Europe. This case is interesting because modern biochemistry has identified a general principle for determining whether or not a particular species is toxic. Its application, however, requires a laboratory test, so in practice the fungi acceptable for human consumption are determined according to the local culture. The result is that the fungi accepted as edible vary widely across Europe, although the actual species vary comparatively little. Russian housewives cook mushrooms which British housewives would look at with horror, even though reliable, scientifically based guides to edible fungi have been available for well over a hundred years.     The nature of fungi as pathogens is just one instance of a general concern of traditional botany. While relatively few plant species are suited for human consumption, others may be recognised either for being toxic or with the power to cure sickness. This is characteristic of cultures in which knowledge is based on oral, rather than literate, tradition. The distinction is critical, for 'it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes'.     What then is the essential difference between memory and written records as the foundation of scientific knowledge. We must return to basics and look at the distinction between sight and sound as human faculties. This is neatly stated by Ong: Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, sound pours into the hearer. Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time ... When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every direction at once; I am at the centre of my auditory world, which envelops me, establishing me as a kind of core of sensation and existence ... By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart ... The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, putting together. In a world without writing it is the mind's disposition to unify knowledge transmitted orally that determines its content. Analytically, such knowledge at any time consists of what is stored in the memory of certain individuals, which means that it is represented only in one, necessarily isolated, spoken language. This is far from the universality of modern science, for which a common language is essential. (The point has been made by Gerard 't Hooft: 'Today, to the regret of some, all science happens to be in English.')     In the absence of any means of recording knowledge, individual memory is constrained to retain countless different instances of any category occurring in nature. Village research in southern Mexico showed how a typical inhabitant could identify from memory hundreds of different plants, while back in the United States more than a hundred professional botanists had to be consulted to find the equivalent Latin names. The reason for this is to be found in the character of the written record. Botany, as a science based on writing, has an unlimited capacity for rearranging its own material, classifying plants in different ways, so that there is always the possibility of some new ordering leading to an original scientific insight.     Nothing need ever be lost, but this gain comes at the cost of ordering and accessing a steadily increasing corpus of material. The range of such processes was greatly increased by the invention of printing (which enabled identical copies of written material to be stored in any number of different places), but this gain was as nothing compared with that following the invention of the electronic computer in the middle years of the twentieth century. What is more, the invention of the microscope some 400 years ago (discussed in Chapter 2) marked the beginning of a process in which the instrumentality at the disposal of botanists, and the range of results that it made possible, steadily increased.     In spite of the extraordinary detail in which natural phenomena are recorded in preliterate cultures, there is still a remarkable disposition to state general principles based on a process of induction common to human thought at any stage in cultural development. A particle physicist, woken by rain early on a summer morning, and looking forward to a day at the beach, could well remark, 'rain before seven, fine before eleven', stating a rule he would find difficult to defend in argument with a colleague who was a meteorologist. If such a rule were acceptable to meteorology (which is doubtful in this new millennium), it would be stated somewhat more circumspectly: There is a significant positive correlation between precipitation in the early hours of the morning and fine weather before midday. This statement (ignoring the principle of never using two words where one will do) would then be supported by calendar records showing that in, say, only 0.5% of recorded cases did rain occurring before 7 a.m. continue until after 11 a.m. The case, so stated, seems extremely unlikely, but if it were true the scientist would look for a theoretical explanation (and a modern meteorologist would probably start talking about isobars and weather fronts). Here the modern scientist is not alone: the process goes back to the first appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens with power of speech.     The Mexican village, once again, is exemplary. In the early morning the valleys are filled with mists. The limestone hills are full of caves, which, in popular belief, are the source of the mists. Get up early and you can see the mist coming out of the side of the hills. The local culture adds a supernatural dimension, but still observation consistently confirms the principle. Moreover, since the caves occur throughout the region, which consists of one range of hills after another, there is no way that a local inhabitant would ever consider the possibility of morning mists occurring in a region with neither hills nor caves.     We have here an attribute of human thinking present most probably throughout the entire history, recorded and unrecorded, of Homo sapiens sapiens . This is the disposition to overexplain. Mexican Indians do not actually need to know what causes the morning mists. Nor does Catholic doctrine require a geocentric universe; the last four centuries have shown that it can get on very well without one. Seven centuries ago, St. Thomas Aquinas would never have accepted this. For him philosophy (which a priori meant the Catholic version) was a theory of everything, or it was nothing. In spite of their vast achievements, which have pushed back the frontiers of the universe to almost unimaginable distances, today's scientists are humble in a way that their ancestors in past millennia were not. Scientific method today would achieve nothing without the rigorous control of its observations by means of instruments of almost unbelievable accuracy. Four hundred years ago, observation still went no further than what the five senses could transmit to the related parts of the brain.     The limitations were most critical when it came to sight: objects too small, too far away or simply too fleeting, were outside the realm of scientific investigation. The same, however, was true of temperatures or pressures that were too high or too low, or of sounds of frequencies that did not resonate in the human ear. This was only half the story. Whatever our human faculties, their usefulness in science is restricted by the local environment, with its limited range of phenomena. The scientific breakthrough began less than 10,000 years ago among populations where the life of some members, at least, brought them into contact with the world outside their own frontiers, and, when these and traders invented writing, the way to scientific knowledge was open. What this involved before the era of modern instruments (which we take to open with the invention of the microscope) is examined later in this chapter. First, however, we must look at the instrumentality developed by humankind before this time. This turns on one critical factor in the life of any human population at any time -- fire. Fire Fire has always been part of human life: when Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth some 100,000-odd years ago, he not only knew fire, but worked with it, reckless of the risks he ran. The earliest hominids' use of fire may have been for guarding against animal predators, which may be the sum of their legacy to Homo sapiens sapiens . By the time that writing first appeared this use of fire had been considerably extended. What then did all this involve?     Fire is essentially an epiphenomenon which takes many different forms: in everyday life these extend from the flash of an explosion to the smouldering of tobacco. The fire characteristic of the stars can be seen in the sun, still our main source of heat and light, but the process of combustion within the sun only began to be understood in the twentieth century.     This chapter, dealing with times long before the development of modern solar physics, is focused on fire confined to our own planet. Even so, the true nature of what we know as fire only began to be discovered in the late eighteenth century, by the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier (whom we shall meet again in Chapter 6).     Fire, following Lavoisier, is the result of a chemical reaction between oxygen and some other chemical, generally an organic compound, that is, one based on carbon. Since oxygen is the main reactive component of the earth's atmosphere and organic matter (which includes all vegetation) is widely distributed both on and under the earth's surface, the basic raw materials for fire occur together in countless different contexts. When what is known technically as combustion occurs, oxygen and a carbon compound (or sometimes just carbon, as in charcoal) combine in a reaction which generates heat, and is generally accompanied by the phenomenon known as incandescence, that is, the particles of matter involved in it emit photons at different frequencies. Those within the visible spectrum we experience as light, those outside it, as heat. Until late in the nineteenth century, incandescence, produced as a result of combustion, was an essential part of any useful process that produced light or heat artificially.     Fire, because of the nature of the reaction that produces it, is essentially destructive. Natural fires have occurred since long before the time of our first primate ancestors, and from the very first appearance of humankind the control of fire has been an essential part of existence. All human populations have had some mastery of fire: not one other species has ever shared it. As Charles Darwin noted, 'the discovery of fire, possibly the greatest ever made by man, excepting language, dates from before the dawn of history.'     In what way, then, has humankind's mastery of fire developed in the course of time? Scientifically, there was much to learn from the fires spontaneously generated in nature. The way that new growth appeared after the original vegetation went up in flames or the reaction of local fauna were phenomena containing many lessons, including particularly the advantages of cooking. Even more fundamental was the chance to preserve and exploit fire, by selecting and transporting combustible material occurring in nature. Once this lesson was learnt, a fire, whatever its natural origins, could be kept alive indefinitely, and the open hearth as a human institution was born. If there is one characteristic of all human habitations, it is that there will be a fire burning at the centre, even in the warmest climates. The need to keep the home fire burning must always have been a major factor in human migration.     The one essential principle in the use of fire is its capacity to transform: ' ignis mutat res '. And transformation is at the heart of science. This explains the unequalled importance of fire, for as the Dutch scientist Herman Boerhaave stated in 1720: If you make a mistake in your exposition in the Nature of Fire, your error will spread to all the branches of physics, and this is because, in all natural production, Fire ... is always the chief agent. (Continues...) Excerpted from A BRIEF HISTORY OF SCIENCE by Thomas Crump. Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Crump. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.