If civilization collapsed, and people in the future could rediscover a single work to get humanity back on track scientifically and technologically, this book would be a contender: Peter Atkins’ Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, published in 2004.
Humanity has been at the mercy of disease forever – plagues have destroyed entire civilizations – but through custom, science, and medicine, we’ve learned so much about disease in recent centuries that its threat has faded somewhat from modern life. Another way to say this might be that, while disease used to be perhaps the most important historical factor in the success or failure of societies, it no longer is.
In 1493, Charles Mann shows us how Europeans emerged at the center of a modern, globalized world by establishing the Columbian Exchange; a system they created but could not control, and with consequences none of them could imagine.
In all four episodes of Context released so far, we’ve focused on big picture historical events; on how environment and economics and politics and science shaped the rise of the modern world. History is chaotic, but it’s always been my impression that by focusing on patterns instead of persons, forces instead of figures, it’s easier to make some sense of it, to trace its general direction. Jack Weatherford’s book from 2004, Genghis Khan, and the Making of the Modern World, provides an exception. Genghis Khan was so influential that it’s worth zooming all the way in.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published in 1962, but it attracted so much attention and proved so disruptive that second, third, and fourth editions followed. It rapidly achieved the status of a classic in the history of science, and ultimately became one of the most cited books of the twentieth century.
Today we’re discussing the book Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, by the historian of science Margaret Jacob, published in 1997. Jacob’s major scholarly contribution was in helping us to understand how scientific knowledge first became integrated into the culture of Europe through the 1600s and 1700s, and how the different social and political conditions of different European countries influenced the application of science to material prosperity. Ultimately, this enhances our understanding of the role of science in the Industrial Revolution, and provides deeper insight on why Britain’s distinctive approach to the utility of science enabled it to industrialize generations earlier than any other country.
Today we’re considering the book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich, and Some So Poor, by David Landes. It was published by David Landes in 1998, and it has occupied a preeminent place on the bookshelves of scholars ever since. Landes boldly argued that historically unique cultural values of curiosity, novelty, and private property empowered European society to lead the modern world; a history that offers invaluable lessons for our own time.
Today we’re considering the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. It was published in 1997, it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1998, along with the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book, and several other awards. It was a highly acclaimed book, and even though it’s now 20 years old it still offers unique insight on why the modern world looks the way it does.