Books about the swashbuckling history of science?
March 19, 2011 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Recommend some books about the history of 17th, 18th and 19th century science.

I enjoy reading about the early history of science, specifically stuff about the Royal Society and the sense of adventure in early science. I liked "Seeing Further", "The Age of Wonder", and the Quicksilver trilogy. I tend to prefer books that include a healthy amount of biography mixed in with discussions of the scientific principles. I would also like to read more about curiosity cabinets and the development of natural history. I read "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads" but didn't think it was that great. Recommendations? Double points if it's available for Kindle.
posted by hilaritas to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed Galileo's Daughter.

It's available on Kindle, it discusses Galileo's scientific developments through a biographical consideration of his relationship with his daughter, and, well, it's just super.
posted by meese at 8:56 AM on March 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth*
Ken Alder, The Measure of All Things
Joyce Chaplin, Benjamin Franklin: The First Scientific American
Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation*
Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book*
James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders
Geoffrey Sutton, Science for a Polite Society*

*may be a bit too academic, but still great fun to read

Lots more where that came from, if you want anything more specific.
posted by nasreddin at 9:15 AM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Newton and the Counterfeiter, which discusses what Newton did when he was working for the Royal Mint, sounds interesting. It's sitting on my shelf of books to read. (But there are a lot of books on that shelf. Okay, so that shelf is actually three shelves. I have a problem.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:16 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, Martin Rudwick's Bursting the Limits of Time is a massive and gorgeous history of 18th-19th century geology which you should definitely check out.

Also, try Harold Cook's Matters of Exchange, although that may also be too academic.

As far as novels are concerned, Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost is the classic.
posted by nasreddin at 9:20 AM on March 19, 2011

I'm not sure if it's enough adventure for you (or if it's too academic), but Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science is very good. The subtitle is Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860, and that's a pretty good summary.
posted by bibliophibianj at 9:32 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might like the Kim Stanley Robinson novels Years of Rice and Salt (alternate history, but really interesting) and Galileo's Dream (half historical fiction, half time-travel), as well as certain episodes of the excellent CBC radio series How to Think about Science.
posted by gerryblog at 10:13 AM on March 19, 2011

Michael Ruse's The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. Academic but highly readable.
posted by painquale at 10:18 AM on March 19, 2011

A World on Fire, by Joe Jackson. It's about the discovery of oxygen, and the two men who isolated it. It's been a while since I read it, but I believe it contained a fair amount of biographical information about the men: Joseph Priestly in England, and Antoine Lavoisier in France.
posted by Janta at 10:34 AM on March 19, 2011

Longitude, by Dava Sobel was a good read.
posted by fings at 10:47 AM on March 19, 2011

Ah, right up your alley: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday.
posted by Corvid at 1:30 PM on March 19, 2011

The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra is really good. I'd suggest getting it in hardback because it's really beautifully bound. Cream paper and a dark brown ink mimicking Leonardo's notebooks instead of the typical white and black.
posted by Caravantea at 2:49 PM on March 19, 2011

A few more 17th/18th-c offerings, off the top of my head:

Charles Webster, The Great Instauration -- perhaps a bit too academic, but foundational.
Schaffer and Shapin, Leviathan and the Air-Pump -- hugely influential on modern hist/sci writing.
Patricia Fara, Fatal Attraction -- all of Fara's work is good, academically sound but accessible to a popular readership.
posted by holgate at 4:28 PM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recently read and enjoyed The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick, about the history of the Royal Society -- Newton, Hooke, Leibniz, &c. and found it to be a good "popular history" for science n00bz like myself. Available for the Kindle here.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 6:08 PM on March 19, 2011

I came in here to suggest Iain Pears' An instance of the fingerpost, so I'm glad it was already mentioned. It's historical fiction, which I'm usually not a huge fan of, but this novel has so many wonderful details about science in the 17th century and it really brings the setting to life.
posted by lollusc at 7:47 PM on March 19, 2011

Fingerpost is a fun read, but I'd like it more if I hadn't spent years studying the period.

A few more from my reference list: Barbara Maria Stafford's Voyage Into Substance, Artful Science and Body Criticism (optics and the technology of the image); Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer (similar, with more of a 19th-c focus); Roy Porter on medicine and madness.

I haven't read, but am intrigued by Alan Cutler's The Seashell on the Mountaintop, because it's about Nicolaus Steno, who was very highly regarded by the founders of the Royal Society, but whose influence is often overshadowed by them in modern histories.
posted by holgate at 8:27 PM on March 19, 2011

I just finished The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

It was a good account of the history of the periodic table and included juicy personal tidbits about the scientists. It rapidly gets into more modern science history once radioactivity is discovered and defined. I think some of the initial explanation of atoms is too anthropomorphizing but atoms are crazy things.
posted by montaigneisright at 3:08 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Lunar Men, wch contains lots of biography and is a fascinating read.
posted by paduasoy at 11:49 AM on March 20, 2011

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