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The Limitations of Science. J.W.N. Sullivan. Mentor Books (1963).
My idea is to review, not the latest books, but old ones, even out-of-print ones, books that are readily available in libraries and second-hand bookstores. There's a mass of great science literature out there which has been pushed aside by new material, and that's a shame. I like to browse in used bookstores, and I frequent library book sales. These approaches don't yield ancient and valuable tomes, but they do yield cheap books, many of which are forgotten gems.
I'd like to discuss a book that I first saw on the bookshelf of a colleague. It's a paperback called The Limitations of Science by J.W.N. Sullivan. It's a 1963 reprint (New York: Mentor) of a book which originally appeared in 1933. It caught my eye because I had read another book by Sullivan, the second volume in the series called Aspects of Science (New York: Knopf, 1926). I really enjoyed it, and so I considered borrowing Limitations, but never got around to it. When I came across it in a used bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin (which is full of bookstores) at $1.50, I couldn't resist.
On the back cover, Sullivan is described as "a mathematician, philosopher, and musician, who was called at his death by TIME magazine, 'one of the world's four or five most brilliant interpreters of physics to the world of common men.' " I had never heard of him until I read an article on the beauty of physics by S. Chandrasekhar, who quotes Sullivan (Physics Today, 32 , p.25). Since I'm interested in the aesthetics of science, I followed up on the quote and came to Aspects of Science, which is a collection of essays. I enjoyed it because Sullivan was saying in 1926 many things which I think still need saying today: that science is an exciting, passionate occupation, that is it more than laws and facts presented in a dry form.
The Limitations of Science is a more cohesive book than Aspects of Science. It gives an overview of science for the non-scientist, but it is not just an attempt at science literacy for the layperson. Though it gives a brief review of the history of science, the presentation is more thoughtful than that usually found in such sketches. Sullivan draws from philosophy of science to explain not only how science has developed, but why it developed as it did.
Why read this book? There's not much new here for the scientist with a broad background, but still it's worth reading for a number of reasons. First, it's interesting to see the approach of a science popularizer of sixty years ago. Of course, you could read Lancelot Hogben's Science for the Citizen (New York: Knopf, 1938), but that's 1100 pages as opposed to Sullivan's 190. Another reason besides brevity is that Sullivan's views on the philosophy of science are interesting and still very pertinent today. He notes that the great value of science is that it has introduced to us new ways of thinking and in the course of the book he describes the scientific attitude and how it developed.
I also found Sullivan's book interesting because he delves into the aesthetics of science. It comes up in the very first paragraph, where he lists why science is valued: for its practical advantages, because it gratifies disinterested curiosity, and because it provides "the contemplative imagination with objects of great aesthetic charm." He goes on to note that "this last consideration is of the least importance, so far as the layman is concerned, although it is probably the most important consideration of all to scientific men. it is quite obvious, on the other hand, that the bulk of mankind values science chiefly for the practical advantages it brings with it." This is about as succinct a description as you will find of the communication gap which separates scientists from non-scientists; the latter do not understand the process of science because they do not appreciate the motivations which drive it.
Sullivan has a great many other interesting points to make, so if you can get a copy of this book, it's worth spending some time with it. One other thing that might lure you to it: it is the small paperback format that's so easy to hold and that now seems reserved for popular novels.
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