The Intersection

Buying Books

So…it is not exactly easy to find history of science classics at your average–or even your well above average–bookstore.

The class I’m officially taking here at Princeton, History 293, focuses heavily on a course packet and so doesn’t have many officially assigned books. It does have a few; they are Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species–which I already own and have read, although right now they’re somewhere in the middle of the country in transit–and Michael Adas’s Machines As the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Cornell Studies in Comparative History)–which, I have to admit, sounds a bit terrifying. I bought it but haven’t started it yet.

But in addition to these works, I’m doing a lot of supplementary reading of classic works of science–not assigned as any official curriculum, but rather, as an unofficial one that I myself am constructing in consultation with my prof.

In any event, I suppose I could have just snapped up the chief works I needed on Amazon, or gone to read them in the library; but instead, largely for the experience of in person book buying, I went to Labyrinth Books this weekend to search for the scientific classics. And while it wasn’t an entirely fruitless endeavor, I did find it pretty amazing how rare such works are among the profusion of science books out there.

Finding works by important natural scientists and explorers like Alexander von Humboldt or Carolus Linnaeus was just hopeless. Labyrinth is by all accounts a great bookstore, but not that great. Not great enough to stock once very important books that nobody reads any more.

And then there’s the other extreme: Books by Darwin I already owned, but even if I hadn’t, finding him is a cinch. Along with books about Einstein, Darwin books are simply everywhere. They’re their own industry.

Such examples notwithstanding, however, I quickly saw enacted, right there at Labyrinth Books, the fact that science doesn’t pause much to think about its history, and that people who read about science rarely read original texts.

Most of the science books on the shelf were works of popular science, technical books, or various nature and environment reads. I had to really struggle to find works by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton–in each case, I finally came across single copies, wedged in among vastly more recent books, and each being sold with an introduction by someone famous (Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein). By snapping up On The Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, and the Principia, I pretty much cleaned Labryinth books out of the top early astronomy and physics classics. And again, this was an intellectual bookstore on a university campus.

Meanwhile, I found Captain Cook’s journals in the bookstore’s world history section. Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis was out of stock–I quickly logged in and got it on Amazon. Lyell’s Principles of Geology was similarly easy to find online, although not available at Labyrinth Books.

And so I’m off to relive the history of science–and maybe blog about the experience. Already, though, one thought is prominent in my mind. To quote a passage from C.P. Snow:

No scientist, or student of science, need ever read an original work of the past. As a general rule, he does not think of doing so. Rutherford was one of the greatest experimental physicists, but no nuclear scientist today would study his researches of fifty years ago. Their substance has all been infused into the common agreement, the textbooks, the contemporary papers, the living present. (Snow, “The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case,” 1970, reprinted in Public Affairs, New York: Scribner, 1971.)

This Snow contrasted with literary and humanistic studies, which of course go back and read past works over and over again.

I have to say, the Snowean contrast was pretty apparent during my first bookstore shopping expedition.


  1. #1 Ashutosh
    February 9, 2009

    Good luck reading the tomes! It is eminently admirable indeed to want to read the original works. The problem as you know is that many of them are unwieldy in size and language, mostly through no fault of their authors’. Darwin’s books are exceptions though and I rapidly leafed through them in college.

    It would be marvelous if you actually manage to trudge through The Principia. If you want a superb and simplified treatment of the work by a mind almost as mathematically formidable as Newton’s, I would strongly recommend “Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader” by Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Not only is it beautifully bound and styled, but the simplicity of the arguments is devastatingly lucid.

  2. #2 Jon Winsor
    February 9, 2009

    Here’s my take: It has to do with the definition of progress in each field. In science, you usually don’t make discoveries by studying the past. You want to be up on the latest. A contemporary textbook or whatever can digest the past for you, plus add the latest as well. If you’re studying the past, you’re kind of studying “meta-science”–looking at science as an institution instead of working in a specific discipline.

    Whereas, in the humanities, you tend to be studying primary source texts and putting them in the context of institutions, as well as studying work contemporary to you. As Ezra Pound said, “literature is news that stays news.” That’s not science.

  3. #3 bob koepp
    February 9, 2009

    Chris – Sounds like your first encounter with what historians of science encounter all the time. I’m living for the day when most “classics” of science, books and articles, are just a click away.

  4. #4 Laelaps
    February 9, 2009

    The Cranbury Bookworm has a pretty good selection, too. They are my favorite used bookstore and they’re definitely worth a try.

    Also, as nice as it is to actually own these books, Google Books and has many of them. Reading an entire book on the computer strains the eyes, that is true, but these sites offer a wider selection for free than you’re likely to find at any bookstore.

  5. #5 John
    February 9, 2009

    Sad, but true. Although you can find a lot of great classic books in the public domain online. This list has a lot of classics, although mostly non-science:

  6. #6 Harry Abernathy
    February 9, 2009

    While you don’t miss out on much science by only reading modern textbooks and journal publications, you do miss out on what it means to be a scientist by not reading the histories and original works.

    Being a good scientist is more than just accumulating a pile of facts, even if you can do well by yourself by doing just that. No, a good scientist understands his/her place in the grand scheme of things and understands the dedication, hard work, and time (usually lots of time) that must be spent running experiments, refining data, chasing wild ideas, and, most importantly, being wrong most of the time.

    A lot of young scientists get disillusioned or frustrated early on because they don’t know what all it took, and how long it took, to get to where we are today. And when they get swamped by months of repetitve labwork or have to toss out years of data due to some overlooked error, they don’t appreciate that it’s all part of the process and choose, rather, to switch careers.

    Pity that. ANYWAY, I commend you on your heavy reading load, and if you have the time, don’t forget to go way back to works such as Plato’s _Timaeus_ or _Macrobius’ Commentary upon Scipio’s Dream _.

  7. #7 Bob K.
    February 9, 2009

    On the Earth science side, I suggest you pick up a copy of Preston Cloud’s 1970 anthology “Adventures in Earth History.” It’s a nice collection of seminal excerpts and articles, starting with Steno’s 1669 explication of his stratigraphic laws. You can usually pick up a used copy for a couple of dollars on Amazon.

  8. #8 Sean McCorkle
    February 10, 2009

    Nice comments here, all. I especially agree with Harry Abernathy’s sentiments.

    Recently I’ve needed to track down several older statistics books (not science history, I know) and I’ve had good luck with the used dealers connected to amazon, but has been helpful as next resort. After that, its ebay for me.

  9. #9 Dark Tent
    February 10, 2009

    “No scientist, or student of science, need ever read an original work of the past. As a general rule, he does not think of doing so. Rutherford was one of the greatest experimental physicists, but no nuclear scientist today would study his researches of fifty years ago.”

    Not true.

    Actually, the best explanations for theories often come directly from the horse’s mouth.

    When it comes to clarity and brevity, Einstein’s original papers on special relativity can not be beat.

    After all the stuff i have read on the latter, I would still have to say that no one has said it better than Einstein himself.

    The same is true of works by others: Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Wolfgang Pauli, and Charles Darwin (of course).

    Those scientists who do not bother reading the originals not only miss out on historical context, but they also miss a great deal of physical insight that can only be had by actually wrestling with the problems the way the originators of the theories did.

    Stephan Hawking put together a great collection of orginal works by some of the giants of physics: on the Shoulders of Giants.

    It’s not easy reading if you don’t have the proper math and physics background, but it provides a lot of insight if you do.

  10. #10 Ashutosh
    February 10, 2009

    Interestingly sometimes there may be an entire field whose early literature is accessible to the educated layman. For instance, when he was writing his magnificent book on the atomic bomb, Richard Rhodes attests that he had no trouble reading the extremely insightful early papers on nuclear physics by Fermi, Bethe, Bacher, Rutherford, Chadwick etc.

  11. #11 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    February 10, 2009

    Melissinos, “Experiments in Modern Physics”, for a glimpse into the experimental basis of 20th-century physics. For a real treat, co-read with Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” mentioned by Ashutoth above. Enjoy!

  12. #12 Bob Wilson
    February 12, 2009

    Adas’ _Machines as the Measure of Man_ is a real classic and a fabulous book. I read it in a history of science course as well and I assign portions of it to my students. Enjoy!

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