Beautifully illustrated history of science books
", filled with color images, this is a sort of mini-coffee-table volume that celebrates the history of science publishing. The author Brian Clegg is a science writer himself, best known for his book A Brief History of Infinity, published in 2003.
Even if you never actually read this book, the images alone are worth the cover price. This book reproduces covers and pages from hundreds of historic volumes. Book collectors and graphic designers will find the visuals fascinating, since the selection of images in Scientifica Historica inevitably presents a historical overview of book design, scientific illustration, and information graphics. The history begins with clay tablets and hand-copied manuscripts before moving into the age of printing. The mathematical diagrams of Euclid’s Elements, the functional planetary charts of Peter Bienewitz’s Astronomicum Caesareum, the chemical hieroglyphics of John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy, and the botanical and zoological etchings of many a 19th-century naturalist are both a visual and intellectual joy to behold. The illustrations get somewhat less impressive as the narrative moves into the late twentieth century, at which point the glory days of scientific illustrations, diagrams, and maps seem to have passed, and the images presented are book covers only.
While the illustrations are very interesting to look through, the writing is often pretty dry. This isn’t really a history of science, after all, but rather a history of science writing. Clegg discusses such matters as how English replaced Latin as the dominant lingua franca of science, or how the field of science writing gradually moved from specialized treatises for highly educated readers to more popular science books for the general reading public. Some of the books discussed are included because they were very important in the history of science, like Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Others, like Audubon’s Birds of America or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, are highlighted because they achieved a level of popularity that allowed them to successfully bring science education to the masses.
Scientifica Historica is a well-conceived study of its subject that manages to be both comprehensive and concise. Although the text isn’t always exciting reading, Clegg does describe the contents of each historic volume well enough for the reader to decide whether he or she would like to read the book in question. An appendix lists the 150 major books discussed in the text (though additional books are mentioned briefly), providing an impressive reading list for those interested in the history of science. About two-thirds of those texts are old enough to be in the public domain, and so free downloadable copies should exist online. For any reader with more than a passing interest in the history of science or the history of the book, browsing through this attractive volume certainly inspires one to seek out and read some of these landmark scientific works of the past.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.