Aaron Arnold's Reviews > Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Society

Seeing Further by Bill Bryson
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Mar 27, 12

bookshelves: science, biography, history, read-in-2011
Read in May, 2011

This is a collection of essays written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London, edited and curated by the omnipresent Bill Bryson. The main attraction for me was that the essays, each focusing on a member of the Society, or a discovery, or on some aspect of its innumerable contributions to human knowledge, were written by a large cast: authors like James Gleick, Margret Atwood, and Neal Stephenson rub shoulders with actual scientists and mathematicians like Richard Dawkins, Ian Stewart, and Gregory Benford. This means there's a variety of perspectives, which is both good and bad. My favorite was Stephenson's explanation of how superstar philosopher/mathematician/inventor/general scientific badass Gottfried Leibniz's bizarre monad philosophy compared not only with archrival Isaac Newton's discoveries, but also with contemporary work into the nature of reality. It's a perfect example of a talented author tackling a difficult subject (I'm not sure anyone knows exactly what Leibniz was thinking, but he's been ridiculed by everyone from Voltaire on down) with style and thoughtfulness. My other favorite was Dawkins' essay on Darwin, which is a similarly good example of how to clearly explain exactly why a complicated idea not only makes sense, but explains the world better than its alternatives. While there were several that either fell short of the mark or were otherwise lacking of interesting content (Margaret Wertheim's piece in particular had an almost unbearably high ratio of words to ideas, and was full of freshman undergrad-type vagaries), overall it was an excellent collection. If you're looking for a quick sampler of perspectives on scientific issues, you could certainly do worse, and it made me aware of the Society's vast influence on the modern world.
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