A People’s History of Science

I just read this book, by Clifford D. Conner. Er, is it clear that the title of the book is the title of the post? If not, it’s called A People’s History of Science. Glad we could clear that up.

Anyway, the thesis of the book is that science, both theoretical and practical, though it owes much to the various geniuses everyone emphasizes, also owes much to a usually unknown army of craftsmen, assistants, and ordinary people.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Not because he doesn’t prove his thesis– he does, and there’s a lot to learn here whether you’re interested in the history of science/technology, or in conworlding. But he can’t resist polemic, and those parts are tedious.

So, when he sticks to his subject, it’s a great book. He has fascinating sections on the Polynesian navigators, on knowledge of plants from around the world, on the practical knowledge of miners, instrument makers, craftsmen, and midwives. It’s full of things I didn’t know, such as:

  • Portugal’s Prince Henry is famous for encouraging navigation; what’s less known is that his captains would kidnap Africans and learn the local sea routes and trade opportunities from them.
  • Similarly, when American colonists wanted to grow rice, which requires deep knowledge of wet-field cultivation, they stole the expertise, by buying African slaves who knew how to do it. Conner find newspaper ads from the 1700s which touted the availability of slaves who had “knowledge of rice culture.”
  • The famous Dutch microscopist van Leeuwenhoek was not a professional scientist but a draper. He was originally interested in lensmaking in order to get a close-up view of his fabrics.
  • The man who won the British contest for a way to accurately determine longitude was John Harrison, a carpenter who had taught himself watchmaking.
  • The invention of printing was followed by an explosion of practical manuals, written by and for craftsmen. Smart savants read these books, or talked to craftsmen.
  • We tend to think of painters and architects as an elevated class– Artists– but traditionally they were considered barely-respectable craftsmen. Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi were all apprenticed to goldsmiths, and Vasari called Michelangelo as “the wisest of all the craftsmen.”
  • Benjamin Franklin published the first chart of the Gulf Stream, which could shave two weeks off the trip across the Atlantic; he himself acknowledges that its was dictated to him by a whaleboat captain, who was his cousin.
  • One 19C account of the steam engine comments, “There is no machine or mechanism in which the little the theorists have done is more useless. It arose, was improved and perfected by working mechanics– and by them only.”

Conner quotes plenty of old-fashioned histories which exalt solitary thinkers and theorists, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Newton to Einstein, trumpet the ancient Greeks as if they invented inquiry and theory, and explicitly downplay craftsmen and practical workers. These ideas are easily demolished by quoting the very Greeks and Renaissance savants they extol, who praise (though they don’t often name) the practical workers their work depended on. The Greeks themselves tell us that they got much of their knowledge from Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The polemic sections, as I said, get tedious. The last few chapters in particular are a slog, as Conner mostly forgets his subject and indulges in a slapdash tour of modern capitalism and its disasters (though for balance he also condemns Stalin). A typical bit is the invocation of the Bhopal gas leak; his one-paragraph discussion has nothing to do with his main thesis and tells us nothing new.

A minor but annoying cavil: being anti-establishment in so many ways sometimes leads Conner into a defense of quack ideas. E.g. there’s a sympathetic discussion of Mesmer’s “animal magnetism.” He approvingly quotes a contemporary who accepted that Mesmer could cure “blindness, deafness, wounds, or local paralysis”, and Conner suggests that the dismissal of Mesmer by the savants was a “monumental missed opportunity for the… advancement of science.” Now, the history of science is largely the history of wrong ideas, and wrong theories are a necessary step toward better theories; but just because “the authorities” condemn a particular set of ideas doesn’t mean that those ideas need rehabilitation. Conner seems to like Mesmer because he railed against the Academy, but describing Mesmerism as “people’s science” is a stretch– as Conner himself notes, Mesmer was supported by a rich banker, and did his best to appeal to high society.

Finally, though there is some recognition of Polynesians, Chinese, and Babylonians here, the book as a whole is extremely Western-oriented. As a nonfiction writer myself, I very much understand the problem of research load. But though he insists on the debt the Greeks owed to Babylonia and invokes Joseph Needham, the Babylonians don’t rate a chapter, nor do the Chinese or Arabs.


This pretty much made my day:

You can see a better view of the picture here.

What is all this? Well, Hermitcraft is a shared Minecraft server whose members all post videos and/or stream on Twitch. They do amazing builds, but they also make games together and interact with the instincts of natural comedians. As the kids say, it’s incredibly wholesome.

When each Hermitcraft season ends, you can download the world map, which I did yesterday. It’s fun to fly around and see things in detail. And of course you can do whatever you want with the map, including adding items. So the joke here is that I added a tiny, ugly shack to Keralis’s beautiful city. And the meta-joke is that it’s not a noob shack made of dirt blocks; I took some time with it to make it really ramshackle. Making your builds far more detailed and interesting than they need to be is something I learned from the Hermitcrafters.