22 January 2019


Peter Shaver. The Rise of Science: From Prehistory to the Far Future. Springer International. 2018.

This book delivers a magnificent, outstanding and informative understanding of the evolution of science. The author shares his lifetime in science explaining the history of scientific discoveries from the earliest civilisations to the prospects for the far future, in a concise and comprehensible manner, “The world a few lifetimes ago would have looked much like as it did hundreds or even thousands of years before. It is only since then that our lives have changed so dramatically, thanks to science and technology.”

Shaver starts his narrative with a brief history of mankind. Our ancestors emerged out of the mist of time, developing conscious awareness about seven million years ago, evolving separately from chimpanzees and becoming a separate species, moving to the open Savannah of Africa and the cold plains of Asia, Europe and ultimately the rest of the world. A crucial evolutionary adaptions was bipedalism, bringing major advantages and allowing them to move faster and more efficiently, and free their hands for other tasks. Footprints have been found of our early ancestors in solidified volcanic ash dated at over 3.5 million years ago. Over the last two million years the technology of tools evolved, then about 50-100 thousand years ago, innovations of several kinds began to appear, tools made of bones, composite weapons such as spears, bow and arrow, fishing, cave paintings, jewellery, transport and burial sites, and most significantly activities of a symbolic and abstract nature.

He shows that all known cultures of the world practised some form of religion and each community created gods in its own image. About 10,000 years ago some of our ancestors gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became farmers. Humans were developing in step with each other even though they were on opposite sides of the planet, cities were built and were located in close proximity to large sources of water as irrigation was essential to all of them, they built canals, dikes and dams, and devices based on the principle of the lever were used in Egypt and Mesopotamia to raise water and pour it into canals

Although writing such as the cuneiform system was developed, along with mathematics, geometry and astronomical observations were conducted, Shaver points out that “none of these huge civilisations produced 'natural philosophy; the rational study of the intrinsic properties and workings of the natural and physical world the basis of modern science” and that “there was not a single natural philosopher known to us in any of these civilisations in spite of their wealth, size and millennia of history of existence. Why?”

The answer Shaver gives is that survival was uppermost for learned individuals, who were mostly employed in the workings of the state, and were constrained by the belief that it was religion that answered questions by invoking a god or other mythological ways to gather explanations. Certainly, he says, the priesthoods would have suppressed any independent thoughts, as kingdoms were ruled by a mandate from the gods, and the marriage of religion, politics and power.

It was the 'Greek Miracle' in the sixth century that the rise of science occurred, the world view changed from being dominated by mythology and religion, to causes that were part of the real world “the world was to be explained by science not by religion”, and the various schools of natural philosophy developed creating thousands of these Greek thinkers.

He outlines the work of many of the Greek philosophers, whose thinking laid the foundation of modern science. Men such as Thales of Miletus (625-545 BC) who is said to have predicted the solar eclipse of 28th May, 585 BC, Thales sought to explain the universe in natural rather than supernatural terms, and was followed by subsequent Greek philosophers over the next thousand years. Besides being considered the first true astronomer and mathematician, he also worked on metaphysics, ethics, history, engineering and geography, calculated the height of the pyramids from triangulation, and explored magnetism and static electricity.

Shaver then sets out the contributions to knowledge of many celebrated Greek philosophers. Pythagoras (570-495 BC) is best known for his geometric theorem, but he also contributed to music, astronomy and medicine. The 5th century Leucippus, was the originator of an atomic theory which asserting everything in the material world had a natural explanation. His most famous student was Democritus (420 BC) who is widely considered the father of modern science. He proposed that all matter is made of atoms (atmos meaning indivisible), clustered in groups. He also suggested that light consisted of atoms in transit, and that the universe was originally composed of atoms in chaos, collisions ultimately forming larger units such as Earth. As well as this early atomic theory, he also wrote on epistemology, aesthetics, mathematics, ethics, politics and biology.

Socrates (470-399 BC) was a towering figure in philosophy concentrating on moral issues. He did not make a direct contribution to science but Shaver shows that his method of enquiry had an influence on the scientific method, maintaining that scientific ideas have to stand up to scrutiny. His student Plato (428-348 BC) was a central figure and his most famous student was Aristotle, the three of them laid the foundations of western philosophy and science. Mathematics was central for Plato who said the real world can only be deduced through rational thought and mathematical truths are perfect, unlike the physical world of our senses.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered to be the 'Father of Zoology' had by far the greatest impact on the development of science. His vast output of 170 works on the natural sciences had a dominant influence through Islamic, medieval and Renaissance times until the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century.

Modern day scientific discoveries are unfolding at a rapid rate in every area and Shaver shows how advances in astronomy have benefited enormously from the new technologies that have become available over the last century. The entire electromagnetic spectrum has become accessible for astronomical observation: the radio, millimetre and optical wavebands are now observable with ground based telescopes as well as the infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. Giant telescopes have been built, outfitted with huge high-tech instruments backed up by massive computing power, extending our observational reach to the farthest limits.

Shaver describes the 'Roads to Knowledge' as “curiosity, intelligence, freedom, education, self-motivation and determination are clearly essential. Luck and serendipity can sometimes play a role - stumbling onto a discovery, or finding a vital clue that leads to a major development”. He makes the important point that even mistakes can have beneficial consequences. War and peace are certainly important factors as many resources are concentrated during wartime and developed in peacetime. He gives examples such as code-breaking leading to the development of computer science, and the research into atomic weapons leading to the study of the subatomic world and the development of beneficial peaceful uses.

Many of the figures the author describes have shown a incredible determination to progress in their research. Galileo joined a monastery and became a medical student before becoming a tutor of mathematics and science, Newton at sixteen years old managed to avoid being a farmer and obtained a position at Cambridge, Herschel built his own telescopes and spent decades alone studying the heavens.

Shaver continues his account with the growth in the number of scientists (he calculates approximately eight million working in the world today) and the fact that the world currently spends 1.5 trillion dollars per year on research. Large international collaborations are becoming more commonplace and they have the greatest impact on science. Shaver goes on to show the development of the great inventions of the day, and describes possible future paths such as the 'quantum computer' allowing vast numbers of multiple states to be acted upon in parallel, and the remarkable 'slug slime” a glue that will stick skin, arteries and internal organs even a beating heart.

Science is integral to the fabric of society, we are reminded that science has risen and fallen three times over the last two and a half thousand years, and even in the last century has faced threats such as the Nazis burning books of 'Jewish science', China’s anti-intellectual 'Cultural Revolution', and most recently from radical Islamic fundamentalists. He makes the remarkable claim that “Our own evolution may also have accelerated over the years, and may now be as much as a hundred times faster than it was a few million years ago”.

In his conclusion Shaver says “The biggest developments of the far future may well come from discoveries that have not yet been made, and that we at present cannot even imagine. The mind boggles at what the future may hold for us. It will be quite an adventure”.

As well as being a comprehensive history of science, this is a well-written and very readable volume, with the author's enthusiasm and authority shining through. It is an ideal introduction to the development of scientific thought for the interested general reader, and could well be a standard textbook for schools, which would instil a real enthusiasm for science as well as provide the basic facts. I recommend this book wholeheartedly. – Gerrard Russell

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