I don’t get an awful lot of time to read books these days. Sad but true. I need something with short chapters or -- better still -- short stories so I can make the most of them before I fall asleep. It is awful picking up a book the next night, opening it right to where you left the bookmark, and realizing that you have absolutely no idea how you got there. But I do read book reviews. And that’s kind of enough, mostly.

So when a friend sent me a link to a review of Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science : Miners, Midwives, and ‘Low Mechanicks’, I thought, OK, this will pass the time on the train home.

And it did, but not in the way I hoped it might. I can’t criticize the book (see above) but the review had me reaching for my pen. The idea is a cracker. Tell the story of the people who really did science but failed to receive acclaim or glory. Sounds like a great organizing principle for a little popularization. But Louis Proyect’s review left me gasping.

In chronological order, we have:

“unsung heroes and heroines, like Antony van Leeuwenhoek …” I confess, I find it hard to know exactly what “unsung” means in this context. Does not every schoolchild know that Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope? So the establishment looked down on him. So what? (And if he didn’t invent it, he certainly brought it to an amazing degree of perfection.) Proyect seems to equate “unsung” with “low-born” or possibly even “uneducated”. But Leeuwenhoek's contributions were welcomed by England’s Royal Society, and when doubt was cast on his observations of microscopic life forms the Society sent a team out to Holland to see for themselves. Leuwenhoek was fully vindicated. Unsung? I don't think so.

Then there is a section on “the rise of numeric symbols”. And cracking useful they are too. But is that science? Of course I have no idea of how -- or even whether -- Conner defines science. For me it is about investigating and understanding the way the world works. Numeric symbols are a dandy tool to assist that enterprise. They are important in what Proyect calls “how science is done”. But they are not themselves science. And pursuing the notion of ”how science is done,” I’d say that the entire review suffers a bad case of what we biologists call physics envy.

That’s not a crime. But it is the case that too many people have considered Karl Popper’s notions of the nature of science -- what it is and how it is done -- as definitive. They’re not. They’re just one person’s view of one kind of science. In fact, I reckon the vast majority of scientists do not set out impersonally to falsify their chosen hypothesis, as Popper says they do. They may say that. But in their hearts they are personally invested in proving that their views are correct. Just like other people. So when Proyect writes “The reputation that elite scientists have for being impartial and above superstition …” I have to ask: do they deserve this reputation?

By this stage, being new to Swans and to Proyect I was beginning to wonder where, as the young people say, he was coming from. From a blog called “Unrepentent Marxist,” and a mailing list called Marxmail. Why continue this review of a review, my conscience asked. Well, I’m almost done, I replied.

“Robert Boyle was an aristocrat, who inherited a fortune from his landlord father Sir Richard Boyle.”

Yes, and? Your point is?

“With his vast fortune, Boyle was able to set up workshops and staffed them with all sorts of craftsmen, from machinists and glassblowers to lens grinders and alchemists (yes, alchemists!). Although Boyle took credit for what happened in his laboratories, recent scholarship concludes that very little of the work was done by Boyle himself. One of the most important inventions was an air pump that was almost certainly constructed by his assistants, despite bearing his name (machine Boyleana).”

And how, prithee, does this differ from the situation today in science, where the lab head, Dr Grant Swinger, appears on all of its published papers, sometimes as lead author, sometimes not? Just because it was reputation and skills that built the lab, rather than inherited money? I’ve seen inherited money put to worse uses.

Proyect says that “the presence of an alchemist in Boyle’s laboratory would raise eyebrows for a modern reader who is accustomed to thinking of this in terms of astrology, witchcraft and the other ‘black arts’”. And so it might. But while he praises Conner for explaining that alchemy is much misunderstood today, he thinks it is important because chemistry and metal working (which is how he characterizes alchemy) had their roots in early metal crafts. But what about the even finer link between alchemists and confidence tricksters? If you want to take advantage of the aristos, what better way than to pretend that you can turn base metal into gold. It just needs a little more research, just a little more funding, your highness.

There’s more to find fault with. Like repeatedly misspelling Rachel as Carsons, when the extensive quote he lifts (from Conner? It isn’t clear) has her correctly as Carson throughout. And to marvel that the status quo always defends itself, illustrated by the attacks on Carson, is just more physics envy. So, scientists are human. Welcome to the world.

There are, of course, some who are less human than others. Like the unsung Thomas Henry Huxley, among whose pithier aphorisms is this: ”The great tragedy of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

I shan’t be reading Conner’s book, and despite everything, I enjoyed reading Proyects review, because it made me think. I will say this in Proyect's favour: he uses good blog software.

2022-03-09: I discovered today that Proyect died in August 2021, that his blog continued until less than three weeks before he died, and that is will apparently continue for all time, less any Premium WordPress features he may have used. All of that is impressive, but does not change my rant one whit.

Reactions from around the web


Webmentions allow conversations across the web, based on a web standard. They are a powerful building block for the decentralized social web.

“Ordinary” comments

These are not webmentions, but ordinary old-fashioned comments left by using the form below.