The obstacles to discovery - the illusions of knowledge - are also part of the story. In this work, Boorstin captures the illusions about the past - the earth before Columbus and Balboa, Magellan and Captain Cook, about the heavens before Copernicus and Galileo, about the human body before Paracelsus and Harvey, plants before Linnaeus, the past before Petrarch, wealth before Adam Smith, the physical world before Newton, Dalton, Faraday and Einstein. He asks unfamiliar questions: why didn't the Chinese discover Europe or America? Why did people take so long to learn that the earth goes around the sun?
For those who actually want details on just how much this book covers, here is the shortest summary I could come up with:
- Humankind's first attempts at astronomy and time-keeping. (The history of clocks was probably my favorite part of the entire book, though the competition was quite fierce.)
- Geography, exploration, navigation, and the inventions of maps and atlases.
- The controversial sciences of Copernicus and Galileo, and the unpleasant reaction of the religious authorities.
- The first explorations into the world of microbes and the rather ghoulish beginnings of anatomy & medicine (another of my favorite parts).
- Isaac Newton and the formation of long-titled Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. (There are some anecdotes in this part that give one the impression that Newton was not a particularly nice guy.)
- The history of zoology, botany, taxonomy, and the theory of evolution.
- Musings on human memory from Homer to Freud, the history of libraries (we can thank the monks for that), printing & book-making, and those illustrious and odd writers of the first generation of dictionaries.
- A history of history (because people used to just make that stuff up before Herodotus came along & he still made a lot of stuff up), archaeology, museums & preservation, anthropology, economics, & statistics.
- Finally, the end of this incredibly wide-ranging work summarizes progress in atomic theory (up to 1911, that is).
Anyway, I left out quite a bit, but you get the idea. And how many gob-smacking fun-facts and anecdotes are available to wow your nerdy friends and compatriots?
A plethora, folks. This book is fantastic. Go stuff your brain.
Although the general thrust of 'discovery' (the long evolution of man's understanding of our world and ourselves) may be well known to most prospective readers, don't let this put you off - I defy anyone to read almost and chapter without discovering some new personality or some new insight.
And don't be so foolish as to assume that, published in 1983, the book is dated, Yes, of course, we've continued to learn many things about distant black holes, the inner space of atoms and the inner space of our own minds, but this book is about the journey - a journey that will never end.
For me, the book has two aspects that set it well above similar works on scientific history. That is, an exploration of how we discovered things that one might not normally think of as a discovery, such as the measurement of Time, or how did the idea of divisions in pre-history into Stone, Bronze and Iton ages develop. How did we start to measure Time? This is a fascinating subject and one in which Boorstin indulges enough space to make a decent foray into the subject.
The other novel aspect of the book is the occasional discussion of "why not them?". Why didn't the Chinese or Islam invent the movable printing press? They had better and more advanced technologies in printing and in paper production long before the west, but it took Gutenberg to invent it. "Why not them" is at least as interesting (if not more) a subject than why Gutenberg did invent it.
Even though 25 years has passed since its publication, the work does not seem to show its age as Boorstin's positions his text in a manner to transcend our current period. Many of these essays will be just as interesting to readers 50 or 100 years from now.
I loved it.