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.