Although from OUP, this is very much in the style of a Dorling Kindersley book, with two page spreads, highly illustrated and well designed in full colour. Although the book breaks the pattern with three big names (Galileo, Newton and Einstein who get four pages each) and in the introductory sections, the effect is very much a series of detached descriptions of individuals rather than a continuous read (not that this is a huge disadvantage – the book works well).
The idea is to uncover the history of science through the ‘science detectives’ the individuals who have moved science on, and who illustrate the scientific method through their work. Divided into sections on the birth, rise, power, triumph and revolutions of science, with a final ragbag of ‘a new world’ with science at its heart, the introductions to the individual scientists work well. They are pitched at the right level, have strong illustrations and pack in enough facts and factoids to give a good background to the significance of each individual.
The oddest thing about the book is the way it treats mathematics. This is labelled up front as one of the four great sciences, but apart from Archimedes (mostly in there for his science and engineering) there isn’t a single truly maths-based entry. I suppose with some early maths it’s the difficulty of having a person-based structure. There should, for example, have been a page on the Indian origins of the use of zero – but with no individual to pin it to, it presents a problem.
The book perpetuates the myth that there was no science between the Greeks and the renaissance apart from a touch of Arabic work (I wouldn’t personally have chosen Avicenna as the only Arab scientist, but hey) – I was disappointed that Roger Bacon didn’t get an entry. There are inevitably one or two other questions of balance. The Maxwell entry, for instance, only passingly mentions the significance of his electromagnetic work on understanding light (apart from anything else, the fundamental foundation of Einstein’s special relativity), which is odd. I also found it strange that Pauling, Hawking and Berners Lee make it in, but not Feynman – this is bizarre. But any ‘best of’ list is bound to start arguments.
The only other slight problem I had is that the ‘science detective’ metaphor of the title, which sounds quite strong, isn’t followed in the book, which just talks about the individuals and what they discovered. It would have been nice to have seen more about the scientific method, using the detective theme, coming through in these individual pages.
However it remains a good overview of the development of science through the lives of some key individuals along the way. It looks good and should go down well with the audience.
Review by Brian Clegg