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Children of Prometheus: A History of Science and Technology. James MacLachlan. Wall & Thompson, Toronto (1989). ISBN 0-921332-27-0. 320 pp. $29.50.
MacLachlan is not embarassed about writing a selective history. It is important, he informs us, to look for "watersheds." He even announces his "originitis"--a concern only for new findings or inventions. The result, however, is not merely a neutral documentation of discoveries (achieved much more effectively in Simon and Shuster's Timetables of Science). The impression is more like that portrayed on the cover and in the frontespiece: there, Benjamin Franklin--framed by stormy clouds and assisted by cherubs, his hair blowing in the wind--conducts his famous kite experiment. There is no hint of the danger or of the historical context of performing such an experiment. Indeed, the Leyden jar that Franklin used is missing, replaced by a key, sending a dramatic spark to Franklin's finger. Science, here, is a romantic unfolding, not a series of puzzles, nor the work of human effort and inherent fallibility. The achievements of science--as suggested by the title--are gifts, like Prometheus's gift of fire to humans. This is not a history, but a series of caricatures and fables.
Now, at one point, we are given a sustained analysis of the differences between DNA researchers Rosalind Franklin and James Watson--one cautious, the other almost reckless--elegantly demonstrating the role of personality or style in science. Would that all the episodes in this volume paused to consider the context or the details of process. More typical is a table showing the relative "opportunties" and coverage of rail lines in different countries in the early 1900s, as though we should view the history of technology as an international contest for efficiency. Where is the discussion of what rail lines mean?
There is something misguided about a history that aims primarily to characterize an event as either an "important contribution" (if it was right) or a "backwards step" or "prejudice" (if it was wrong). What do we learn by dismissing the alchemists' work as "fruitless," or by excluding the Chinese, whose achievements, we are told, do not deserve the title 'science'?
The central value of this book is that it serves as a reminder that theory-laden history is no better than theory-laden science. If you see only what your conceptual lens allows you to see, you learn nothing. History can only be informative if we "listen" to it with some sensitivity, trying to understand why and how scientists asked certain questions or why and how inventors designed certain devices.
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