Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Great Books of science

A few more words on Britannica's Great Books of the Western World.

I can't imagine what inspired Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler to include so many original works of science in their collection. I think I can safely guarantee that neither man had read his own way through Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres or Newton's On the Principles of Natural Philosophy, say. OK, the prefaces, maybe. But the entire books? No way. And I doubt if anyone among the tens of thousands of customers who bought the Great Books made it past the prefaces either.

Yes, it would pay someone's time to dabble in Aristotle's Physics, say, or Plato's Timaeus. Likewise a glance at Galen's On the Natural Faculties, Archimedes' The Sand Reckoner, and Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. But Apollonius of Perga and Nicomachus of Gerasa? Forget it. Life is too short.

Euclid's Elements is a monumental contribution to civilization. I worked my way through Book I (of thirteen), which ends with a brilliant proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. It was an illuminating exercise. But for a person without substantial prior mathematical training it would be impossible.

For my money, the greatest work of classical science is not included in the collection: Aristarchus's On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon. A dazzling tour de force. But, again, don't begin unless your geometry is up to snuff and you have a few months to spend.

It would pay any liberal arts student to read the prefaces of Copernicus and Newton, but it would turn them off science forever to ask them to go further. I once spent a summer slogging my way through Copernicus's chapters on the Sun and Mars (see Walking Zero). Could Hutchins or Adler have done it?

The collection includes Galileo's Dialogues On the Two New Sciences, which is indeed one of the founding documents of experimental science. But the average reader would be better advised to read The Starry Messenger or Letter to Grand Duchess Christina.

Lavoisier, Fourier and Faraday? Only if you have a serious interest in the history of science, although I would happily recommend to the general reader Faraday's lectures on The Chemical History of a Candle, not included. Darwin and Freud are of foundational importance to western civilization, and anyone who wants to engage in "the great conversation" should have an acquaintance with their work, but there are cheaper ways to do it than by investing in a shelf of mostly impenetrable science texts.

So there! Take that Britannica. The story of discovery represented by the science books in your collection is indeed amazing, but primary texts are by and large not the best way to learn it.