The Ascent of Science

Brian L. Silver, who died just prior to the publication of this book, was a professor of physical chemistry in Israel. THE ASCENT OF SCIENCE was his very personal statement about the place of science in Western culture. It ambitiously combines history, non- mathematical accounts of the current state of science, philosophical musings, and autobiographical snippets to make two points about science. Silver argued that scientific ideas have had an impact on many areas of thinking beyond science itself. He also claimed that the history of science has been a history of conflict between competing ideas about the nature of the universe (Silver contended that he had not written a history, but “an account of the major battles”). Neither claim is particularly controversial among historians of science, although the general public may be less cognizant of them.

The book reads as if Silver hoped it would serve as the basis of a television series. The organization is extremely episodic and the author loved to appear suddenly in the midst of the narrative to make a controversial or irreverent remark. As a result, the history is fragmented and it is easy to lose track of the chronology.

On the other hand, the best parts of the book are Silver’s asides—both his observations on science and his brief excursions into autobiography. Silver was a great storyteller. Ultimately, however, the book falls short by trying to do too much. There are better and more accurate histories of science, written by historians familiar with the current literature and the sources. There are more focused popular accounts of modern science, written by members of the particular scientific discipline.