Jardine: Ingenious Pursuits
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Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits : Building the Scientific Revolution. New York : Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 1999. xx + 444 pages; illustrations and color plates.
I wanted to like this book more. Jardine is a specialist in Renaissance History and puts all the right details in place to make a fascinating study of how key ideas at the birth of modern science, the work of people immersed in everyday life, set science on its course of world-altering discovery. But somehow her writing is a little flat and never quite engaged my attention fully in a narrative of social and professional conflict and the clash of ideas that can be pretty exciting stuff. However, her writing is not bad and there are valuable and interesting stories to be read if the reader is willing to work a little for them. In the end, I think Jardine occasionally lost sight of her theme amidst all the beguiling details, a flaw attributable to her love of her subject.
Nonetheless, her goals in this volume were well set and worth pursuing. From the "Introduction" this excerpt (pp. 5--8) explains her perspective:
The scientist is not a malevolent Dr Frankenstein, creating monsters beyond his control. The scientist, like the artist, is one of us. He or she pursues scientific research along directions set by the intersts and preoccupations of the community he or she belongs to. What keeps the scientist alert to the moral implications of his or her investigations is that sense of belonging, together with the fundamentally collaborative nature of the scientific project itself. Anyone who has watched a team of scientists at work in a modern laboratory will know that there is more to scientific inquiry than the lonely, rational pursuit of truth. From the designing of experiments to the writing up of results, science is conducted by vigorous group discussion and debate, marked by those moments of dazzling illuminations and shared recognition that characterise insight in all domains of human endeavour. Advance in any field has always been preceeded by a sudden leap of the imagination, which is recognised for its brilliance by the participating group, and galvanises them in their turn into futher activity. Here is a kind of intellectual anthropology that can be further explored. Our Western intellectual heritage has been shaped by ingenuity, quick-wittedness, lateral thinking and inspired guesswork, but not haphazardly. In its detail it is guided and given its informing values by a common code of practice, which is simply an extension of the rules that govern our everyday life.
The early modern world was in a kaleidoscope of flux before the philosopher John Locke redrew the contous of graspable ideas, and the scientist Rober Boyle heated mercury in his crucible, or Galileo Galilei rolled a ball down an inclined plane. In Ingenious Pursuits I explore the forces for change that brought the human and natural sciences together and gave them shape. Each of my selected contributing factors -- among them, precise time measurement, enhanced astronomical observations, selective animal and plant breeding, technological advances in navigation, chemical substance analysis, the mathemaitics of naturally occuring curves -- lays a crucial part of the foundations for modern thought and the practice it animates. With each successive layer it becomes easier for the inquiring minds of the next generationto identify the problems on which to fucus their attention. The consequences of these key changes surround and evnvelop them, they shape the world the aspiring mind actively inhabits.
These defining scientific moments were inseparable from the rest of early modern day-to-day life. The key questions whose solution shaped our modern world view arose out of events regarded as remarkable well beyond the confines of any small, select band of intellectual innovators: the appearance of two unusually bright comets in quick succession; a piece of new technology (such as the microscope) becomeing available on the open amarket; a new commodity (such as cocoa or coffee) 'taking off' with discerning consumers; the observed therapeutic effectiveness of a non-indigenous, naturally occurring substance (such as rhubarb or quinine).
It is because science grows out of the preoccupations and pressures of everyday life that its discoveries have, in the end, to be accessible to all of us. Scientific progress outght to be meaningful to the ordinary person in the street because each of us has participated in the way of life that has produced the problems pressing for soution. We may not understand the jargon, or know enough mathematics to follow the equations, but we ought all to be able to understand that the laboratory that has cloned Dolly the sheep has thereby made it possible to mass-produce medical products vital to combat the world's new, virulent diseases.
-- Notes by JNS