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Sir Ernest Rutherford. Illustration/Getty Images

Scientifica Historica: The 150 most important works of science

Writer Brian Clegg compiles science’s greatest hits, from Thales of Miletus to Sir Ernest Rutherford.

The term scientist was coined only in 1834. Before then, science and research still happened, but the activity came under many different names back into the depths of prehistory. The Ishango bone, a 20,000-year-old baboon leg bone found near the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has a series of notches that serve as tally marks carved into it. The even older Lebombo bone, from 40,000 years ago, has similar notches though there is dispute about what they might be. In any case, early homo sapiens were busily gathering data to solve a problem, an activity that today sees an estimated four million peer-reviewed articles published each year in biological sciences alone.

Scientifica Historia is a kind of bucket list of the 150 most important science works, chosen by science writer Brian Clegg. To qualify, the works need both impact and ambition and to convey a sense of wonder and beauty. De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century BC, took on everything from the nature of space and matter to disease and agriculture in a 7400-line poem.

The Library of Alexandria, founded in about 200BC, aimed to collect the totality of the world’s wisdom on what some estimate to be up to 400,000 scrolls. Clegg tells us that one of the first to make the shift from a mythological explanation of the world to something like a scientific view might have been Thales of Miletus, who was writing in roughly 600BC.

We can never know what has been lost from the ancient world. When Archimedes came up with a way to calculate the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe, in his work The Sand Reckoner in 300BC, he referred to the work of Aristarchus of Samos, who theorised a solar system with the Sun at the centre well before Copernicus.

Science is also about imagination, and what we imagine is limited by our worldview. If there is a theme in this catalogue, it is how the questions science asks stretch boundaries. The ancient Greeks’ largest named number was myriad, or 10,000, so the largest number in their world was myriad myriads or 100 million, a limitation Archimedes had to hurdle for his grain of sand problem. The Chinese invented movable type well before Gutenberg, with a printed book produced in 1193, but the technology did not initially take off in China, partly because of the difficulty of reproducing the thousands of characters in the Chinese language. The more succinct Roman alphabet enabled Western Europe to make faster and greater leaps in science from the Middle Ages.

Sir Ernest Rutherford earns a reference for his supposed remark, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” As a particle physicist, Rutherford was surely talking about the fundamental structure of nature, but for the rest of us the natural world as rendered by Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Hooke’s renditions of what he saw through his microscope and John James Audubon’s Birds of America will be more engaging than diagrams of black holes in Stephen Hawking’s rarely read bestseller A Brief History of Time.

Clegg is an assured guide on a journey through 40,000 years of space and time.

SCIENTIFICA HISTORICA, by Brian Clegg, (Quarto, $45)

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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