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20 April 2010 @ 08:24 pm
Man and Nature in the Renaissance  
I stole rescued Man and Nature in the Renaissance by Allen G. Debus from my father's bookshelves a few months ago, once again prompted by an interest in the history of science. The book is primarily interested in the development of the chemical and biological sciences during the renaissance as opposed to the physical sciences, partly I suspect because the work in these areas is less a part of the scientific folk mythology of the period.

I was very struck by the stress the book placed on the fact that many of the advances, e.g. Descartes' work in Geometry and Optics were made by people who nevertheless also believed stuff that was wrong (e.g. Descartes did not admit of the possibility of a vacuum, so his cosmology is exciting and interesting). Debus likes to frame this as a belief in alchemy and/or magic. I'm not quite sure what point he's trying to make there. I mean scientists believe wrong stuff all the time, even in this day and age. We have much clearer methodologies for sorting out the incorrect from the correct beliefs, but that doesn't stop us making incorrect hypotheses, developing incorrect theses and world models or just being plain mystified about forces like gravity. So, I wasn't really all that surprised, in an age where scientific method was in its infancy, to find a much less clear line between the correct and incorrect. That may have been the point, but the use of the words magic and alchemy suggested to me that Debus was trying to draw a different distinction that was deeper than just being right about stuff and being wrong about stuff.

I also found the book fascinating when it touched on the debates among the philosophers of the time over scientific method itself. In particular that for many renaissance philosophers mathematical models and empirical models were seen as opposing rather than complimentary. In general, in modern science, we seek to have a mathematical description of the world that is backed up by empirical evidence, whereas Debus presents opposing schools of thought that believed that either all was exhaustively empirical and that you must catalogue and observe everything before, maybe, hypothesising a model or that progress should proceed by reason and deduction, unhampered by observation. Galileo therefore emerges as something of a hero towards the end of the book as he marries observation and mathematics into the beginnings of something recognisable as scientific method.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/3695.html.
sophievdennis on April 30th, 2010 11:06 am (UTC)
yes, I'm pretty sure Dad has Longitude as well. It is better than GD, though has some of the same weaknesses, which I think I would sum up as Sobel being a good historical researcher, but a poor storyteller. Happily the Longitude story is sufficiently gripping in itself.

If the Holmes is only just making it to the top of the To Read pile, I'm guessing extra books are urgently needed.

The Holmes is, I thought, very good. Both well written, and excellently researched. Not only are the individual biographies/chapters enlightening - the chapter on Herschel I found particularly fascinating - but it definitely does give you a feel for the whole culture of science and discovery of that time, and how all the different players interconnect. Enjoy.