The Grand Contraption

How did the world begin, how old is it, and what is it made of? Every culture since the beginning of time has grappled with these questions. David Park's short, accessible book, The Grand Contraption: The World As Myth, Number, and Chance, chronicles the history of the gods, philosophers, and scientists they turned to for their answers.

Park, a professor of physics at Williams College, starts his book at the very beginning of written history, with the ancient Sumerians and their view that the earth was flat, a firmament across the sky held back the waters above, and gods corresponded to the stars. He moves on to Greece, where Socrates, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and other thinkers made advances in philosophy, science, and math that would be studied for thousands of years. He glosses over the dark ages, and then, picking up the story in the era of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, and Sir Isaac Newton, the pacing becomes fast and furious as the rate of innovation picks up drastically.

This is where the book struggles in finding its voice. Having gone through several millennia neatly summarizing the scientific progress in accessible laymen's language, and expounding on religion, culture, and politics from these eras to put it all into context, Park reaches an impasse at the dawn of the twentieth century. Relativity and quantum mechanics do not lend themselves to the breezy treatment of the other topics, and it is doubtful readers would be able to follow along without some prior exposure to those subjects. However, Park does about as well as could be expected at staying true to the spirit of the book without overlooking these essential developments in scientific history.

The Grand Contraption is a well-executed overview of the evolution of mankind's knowledge, drawing from a wide variety of disciplines to tell its story.