Looking for "The-birth-of-[field of science]" and "The-X-that-changed-the-world" stories.
February 21, 2011 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Looking for "The-birth-of-[field of science]" and "The-X-that-changed-the-world" stories.

I love books like The Poisoner's Handbook, The Ghost Map, The Devil in the White City and Longitude. Stories about discrete events and/or discoveries that changed the course of science and history.

What are some more stories like these, especially ones that haven't been made into books yet?
posted by gottabefunky to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn is a great but cerebral look at how Copernicus changed the earth-centric cosmology.
posted by genekelly'srollerskates at 10:31 AM on February 21, 2011

you mean like Connections and The day the universe changed?
posted by jak68 at 10:32 AM on February 21, 2011

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything gives an overview of the development of & key players in most of the hard sciences. It's also a great read.
posted by headnsouth at 10:43 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, realized that if doctors washed their hands between treating patients, the spread of disease (specifically puerpural fever among woman who have just given birth) could be severely curtailed. Of course, he was laughed out of the academy.
posted by Bromius at 10:48 AM on February 21, 2011

The Map that Changed the World - Simon Winchester has a book on the English geologist who made the first geologic map, and how this led to the development of modern geology. The book is, like most of Winchester's, frustratingly light on the nitty gritty that I want to see, but it's still an introduction to a really cool intellectual development.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:57 AM on February 21, 2011

The Invention of Air was a nice quick read about the Joseph Priestly and his work.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:05 AM on February 21, 2011

The Dream Machine talks about JCR Licklider's vision of networked and interactive computers, back in the days when even punch cards were high tech. Of all the books I've read on the history of computing, this is my favorite one.
posted by jasonhong at 11:07 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Friedrich Wöhler's synthesis of urea is often claimed as the birth of organic chemistry (previously, people believed in the principle of vitalism--that products of living things were inherently unique and impossible to reproduce by artificial means.) It comes up in every introductory o-chem textbook, but I've never seen it written about outside that realm.
posted by kagredon at 11:10 AM on February 21, 2011

A Man on the Moon. If you don't like astronauts (and who doesn't like astronauts?), pay attention to the extensive parts about lunar geology, Farouk El-Baz, and the Genesis Rock.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:32 AM on February 21, 2011

treeshar - Richard Bellman wrote an autobiography called Eye of the Hurricane. There are excerpts in this paper [PDF].
posted by djb at 11:45 AM on February 21, 2011

There's a fantastic series of books by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch dealing with some of the strangeness of scientific revolutions, the first of which, The Golem: What you Should Know About Science is a fantastic read about the birth of different scientific fields.
posted by DeltaZ113 at 11:53 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Where Wizards Stay Up Late is an early history of the Internet (overlapping with JCR Licklider, op cit).
posted by adamrice at 11:55 AM on February 21, 2011

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery
posted by djb at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2011

I just finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book about the woman from whom scientists collected the first cells that could survive and grow in a lab.

Her cells are responsible for countless discoveries and breakthroughs in modern medicine, and the story does a great job of weaving together the personal story with the science history and the evolution of our ethical standards as a society.

It was a great read, and totally fits your description: The cells that changed the world. Already a book, though.
posted by nadise at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is a video series, not books, but you'd probably love James Burke's Connections. Some are available online and some are available on DVD through Netflix.
posted by Madamina at 12:20 PM on February 21, 2011

For a more sophisticated take on these sorts of stories, and to help you find the 'unpublished' ones, you could do worse than start exploring history of science/medicine blogs. Whewell's Ghost is a pretty good compendium/overview (including a link to a blog specifically about Longitude, which may make you reconsider Sobel's story...)
posted by AFII at 12:26 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The 8th day of Creation for molecular biology

The scientific revolution
for....the scientific revolution
posted by lalochezia at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2011

lalochezia: "The scientific revolution for....the scientific revolution"

Your second link is broken but I hope you were referring to Shapin's book.
posted by turkeyphant at 1:06 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Simon Winchester books "The Professor and the Madman" and "The Map That Changed The World" would be good candidates.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:08 PM on February 21, 2011

Great thread.
Here are my suggestions, all of which I found gripping:

Probaby the closest to longitude - Mapping India and naming Everest:
The Great Arc


The Plague Race

The BBC series the Story of Science is worth watching if you can.
posted by 92_elements at 3:54 PM on February 21, 2011

I was surprised to discover that a large number of the nobel prize lectures were amazingly readable and fascinating. Pick a field, and you get first-hand accounts of some truly world-changing stuff, mostly written for a non-specialist (I won't say general) audience.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:33 PM on February 21, 2011

oops: turkephant's link is right....it is the shapin book.
posted by lalochezia at 9:43 PM on February 21, 2011

Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution is about these transitions, and so mentions many of them in passing and/or in depth.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:42 AM on February 22, 2011

The Wild Trees - totally changed the scientific community's view on the ecology of the giant trees. Plus, stories of awesome tree climbing!
posted by timepiece at 1:32 PM on February 28, 2011

« Older My Nice Menu is sad   |   upgrading computer/IT skills Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.