The Ascent of Science

The Ascent of Science

The Ascent of Science

The Ascent of Science


From the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo and Newton to the mind-bending theories of Einstein and Heisenberg, from plate tectonics to particle physics, from the origin of life to universal entropy, and from biology to cosmology, here is a sweeping, readable, and dynamic account of the whole of Western science. In the readable manner and method of Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, the late Brian L. Silver translates our most important, and often most obscure, scientific developments into a vernacular that is not only accessible and illuminating but also enjoyable. Silver makes his comprehensive case with much clarity and insight; he locates science as the apex of human reason, and reason as our best path to the truth. For all readers curious about--and especially those perhaps intimidated by--what Silver calls "the scientific campaign up to now" in his Preface, The Ascent of Science will be fresh, vivid, and fascinating reading.


That which we know is a little thing; that which we do not know is immense.

--Pierre-Simon de Laplace

Science, man's greatest intellectual adventure, has rocked his faith and engendered dreams of a material Utopia. At its most abstract, science shades into philosophy; at its most practical, it cures disease. It has eased our lives and threatened our existence. It aspires, but in some very basic ways fails, to understand the ant and the Creation, the infinitesimal atom and the mind-bludgeoning immensity of the cosmos. It has laid its hand on the shoulders of poets and politicians, philosophers and charlatans. Its beauty is often apparent only to the initiated, its perils are generally misunderstood, its importance has been both over- and underestimated, and its fallibility, and that of those who create it, is often glossed over or malevolently exaggerated.

The attempt to explain the physical universe has been characterized by perpetual conflict. Established theories have continually been modified or violently overthrown, and as in the history of art and music, innovations tend to be ridiculed only to become, in time, the new dogma. The struggle between old and new has rarely been dignified. Scientists come in many colors, of which the green of jealousy and the purple of rage are fashionable shades. The essence of scientific history has been conflict.

This book presents science as a series of ideas that changed the course not only of science itself but often of whole areas of human thought. Science, of course, has its practical benefits, but they will not be our primary concern. This is not a book about nonstick frying pans. We will be looking at ideas--admiring their beauty, occasionally standing awestruck before the towers of imagination, but always being prepared to doubt; always being aware not only of the ingenuity but also of the deep limitations, and the repeatedly demonstrable inertia, of the human mind.

Science, by its nature, is changeable. There is always some scientist, somewhere, who is disproving an explanation that another scientist has proposed. Usually these shifts of interpretation leave the fabric of society undisturbed. Occasionally, however, real revolutions tear down part of our system of established beliefs. Thus, in the seventeenth century, science presented us with a mechanical universe, a giant inexorable clock. Three centuries later, physics has cut some of the levers that bind cause to effect and has led us into a shadowy maze where we affect the universe by the act of observing it and are ignorant of the true meaning of our most basic concepts.

Some see the fragility of scientific theory as an indication of a basic inability of science to explain the universe. But scientific change is almost always accompanied by an increase in our ability to rationalize and predict the course of nature. Newton could explain far more than Aristotle, Einstein far more than Newton. Science frequently stumbles, but it gets up and carries on. The road is long. As we . . .

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