2020 | 416 p. | £ 20
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When we look at science in the distant past, most people generally think of one of two things: that it did not exist, or that it was made possible almost entirely by highborn men who experienced sudden eureka moments of brilliance. While logic tells us that either of these ideas must be clearly wrong, the image of Archimedes in his bathtub or Newton’s being hit in the head by a stubborn apple is hard, and there is some appeal , on the history of science as a series of bite-sized, Hollywood-worthy highs.
It is this misunderstanding that seb falks The age of light tries to correct. The book takes us back to the 14th century and follows in the footsteps of a Benedictine monk named John Westwyk who explored the scientific world of his time. Falk starts with the basics and explains how early mathematicians could do complex calculations and how common people used the sun and stars to measure time, all the way to Westwyk’s development of a “computer” to track the movement of planets. Throughout the story, Falk not only paints a picture of the state of science in the 13th century, but also of the people and the lifestyles they enjoyed.
In places, The age of light is pretty much all at once. Many of the book’s mathematical and astronomical explanations are very dense, and someone unfamiliar with the subject can easily lose track of what is being discussed. In particular, I found some of the early descriptions of how individuals followed the motions of stars with the eye difficult to visualize, and while the book provides some diagrams, it still gave me a break.
The real strength of the book lies in its atmosphere that brings you into the realities of medieval life. Falk closes his prologue with a quote from LP Hartley’s The go-between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. ‘ That is undoubtedly true, and The age of light does a brilliant job of highlighting how – and most importantly, why – medieval science was different from what we might discern today.
For all the differences, however, as I went through the book, I thought of a very different quote, this time from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead; it’s not even over yet. ‘ Despite the 700 years that separated us from John Westwyk, the echoes of the work he and his fellow scientists have done still echo in our presence, down to the very words we use to describe the world around us. The term digital, for example, comes from the Latin word digitize (Fingers) in relation to how ancient mathematicians developed techniques that used their own hands to perform complex calculations. The word calculus comes from pebbles (in Latin Calculus) used in abaci and counting boards.
Combined with the wealth of historical information, Falk presents in The age of light, this book is a delightful glimpse into our own roots as scientists and is certainly worth reading for anyone interested in the truth behind the so-called dark age.