Dawn of Modern Science

Dawn of Modern Science is not about the revival of Western science that began in the late Middle Ages. Anyone interested in the rediscovery of Aristotle’s science, its modification and its supercession will find little enlightenment in Thomas Goldstein’s book. For a book concerning science, it is peculiarly innocent of scientific knowledge. Similarly, anyone concerned about the conditions which make science possible will look in vain for guidance. Science depends on an orderly system of notation, mathematics of some sophistication, and a broad technological base. Chemistry without its symbols is unthinkable; physics without the calculus is improbable; and astronomy and biology would soon have reached their limits without the telescope and microscope. Yet, Dawn of Modern Science is not about the development of these preconditions of scientific progress.

Goldstein’s book is instead a “popular history”; its aim is to give “a lively, all-around picture of the major currents and their links with the surrounding cultural history.” It is on this surrounding cultural history that his attention is concentrated. The book is profusely illustrated, mostly with artistic masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa, or architectural ones, such as the main façade of the Chartres cathedral. In connection with Leonardo da Vinci, the reader is given, not an analysis of his scientific achievements, but a page and a half of highly romantic and conjectural history on the relationship between him and his model for the Mona Lisa, the wife of Messer del Giocondo. Uncharacteristically, the dust jacket reproduces a painting illustrating a pulley system and on page 105 some Islamic medical instruments are depicted. Typically, however, the reader is told neither how the pulley system works, nor what the instruments were for. This is the usual emphasis: Goldstein is far more interested in the manifestations of the scientific spirit in art and architecture than he is in science itself.

Nevertheless, he does give a sketch of early scientific development in those eras in the history of Western Europe—the Greece of Plato and Aristotle, the Renaissance of the twelfth century, and the Italian Renaissance—when the light of learning and culture has glowed with a special intensity. Greek science culminated in Aristotle, a towering critical intelligence whose influence was eventually dimmed by Rome and blotted out by the midnight of the early Middle Ages. At last, in the twelfth century, at Chartres and at Oxford, the light of intellect glowed again in William Conches and Robert Grosseteste. Conches’ brave words single out the natural world for independent study:To seek the...

(The entire section is 1108 words.)