Almost since we climbed down out of the trees humanity has been trying to define the universe and our place in it. Gradually we developed methods by which we could codify and analyze the information at our disposal in order to formulate answers. At first these took the form of simplistic superstitions based on a myriad of belief systems and myths. However, as the years passed and our knowledge grew, we developed methods which allowed us to come up with answers based on facts. This in turn created a body of information common to all humanity independent of individual belief systems. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, especially when discoveries have flown in the face of accepted wisdom or contradicted the teachings of powerful religious bodies.
For some reason people are more afraid of rational explanations and scientific facts than they are of mysticism and unfounded beliefs. Even today religious fanatics of many faiths not only refuse to accept proven scientific theories, but are insisting their individual beliefs be given equal status in spite of there being no proof as to their validity. One of the reasons they’re able to get away with this is the majority of people know almost nothing about the various rational means used to define the universe. For some reason most of us see these areas of study as completely inaccessible and assume they can only be understood by a few people. A new series of books by British science author Tom Jackson, The Ponderables goes a long way towards refuting that sentiment. In fact, judging by the first three volumes, The Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table, Mathematics: An Illustrated History of Numbers and The Universe: An Illustrated History of Astronomy, this series will not only help demystify science it will remind people of just what an amazing and magical world we live in.
Each of the three books shows how our awareness and knowledge of its subject matter has developed over the course of human history. However, instead of merely recounting dry facts and figures Jackson manages to bring the individuals responsible for some of the world’s great scientific breakthroughs to life by not only recounting their discoveries but telling us the story behind them. Divided up into a hundred great milestones in each area’s history we are able to witness the growth of awareness and knowledge from the time of ancient Greece to the present day. Each book also comes with a handy dandy 12-page pull out timeline that can be used for quick reference. On the reverse side you’ll find 12 pages of information specific to each subject. Seasonal star charts in The Universe, great mathematical enigmas in Mathematics and a chart of elements in their atomic order in The Elements
Aside from talking about the various individuals and their discoveries, each section not only contains illustrations which help to explain their significance, Jackson also includes explanatory notes ensuring readers won’t have any trouble understanding what’s being discussed. While this is not some simplistic “science made easy” type of book, Jackson has the ability to make the material accessible and interesting. Not being a person with a significant background in the sciences I was pleased to see he doesn’t make any assumptions about his reader’s knowledge. Yet at the same time not once do you have the feeling that he’s talking down to you. It’s like having a well educated and personable tour guide through the history of each subject.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he includes such historical events like Hennig Brand (a 17th century German alchemist) being the first on record to discover a new element. Boiling his urine down, he watched as it began to glow in the dark and named the resultant powder phosphorus. But it’s not just elemental scientists who know how to have fun; mathematicians are no slouches either. The Russian Ladislaus Bortkiewicz developed one of the main tools used in statistics in 1898 when he computed the odds of a Prussian cavalryman being killed when kicked by a horse. Or did you know astronomers have come up with a term for the opposite of The Big Bang which created the universe? They call it the Big Crunch–but don’t worry they figure we’ve got a few billion years until all of matter collapses in on itself.
Those unfamiliar with the history of science might also be surprised to discover that Astronomy has proven to be one of the most contentious issues down through the ages–at least in the Western world. Starting with Aristotle in ancient Greece, it was believed the earth was at the centre of the solar system and everything, including the sun, revolved around us. This fit in nicely with the Catholic Church’s view of the world, and anybody who disagreed with them ran into all sorts of trouble with the Inquisition. In spite of being able to offer conclusive proof that the Earth and the other known planets revolved around the sun, Galileo Galilei, facing jail time and potential burning at the stake for heresy, was forced to recant his theories. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Vatican apologized for its mistreatment of Galileo.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time he had gone against conventional wisdom. There was also the incident with the two canon balls of different sizes which he dropped off a building and observed they both hit the ground at the same time. Up until then accepted doctrine was the larger object would fall faster than the smaller one, but Galileo’s simple proof showed how gravity doesn’t care about size and exerts the same amount of pull on all objects.
Watching human knowledge grow over the centuries is both fascinating and revealing. For not only do we grow to understand how it’s a cumulative process, we also realize that most of the information was there for anybody to discover, it was only a matter of observation. As our technology has become more sophisticated, so has the equipment we use for making our observations. We’ve gone from watching the night sky through simple telescopes to high powered observatories to finally the Hubble telescope in orbit. The observation of particles has graduated from microscopes to electron-microscopes to super conductors.
However, what I find most impressive about Jackson’s books is how they manage to convey the wonder and magic of the universe we live in while showing there are rational explanations for all that we see. Knowledge helps us to understand the world around us and in the process deepens our wonder as we realize how special and rare it is. The Ponderables series introduces us to some of the most important people and events over the course of humanity’s history who have been responsible for unveiling the world’s mysteries. After reading them, you can’t help but be excited by the magic still waiting to be revealed.