The Best Books On Enlightenment Science

The Books I Picked & Why

Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

By James Delbourgo

Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

Why this book?

James Delbourgo’s book shows that history matters. As the founder of London’s British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane has always played an important part in displaying our national heritage, and Delbourgo’s book explores the wondrousness of the artifacts he amassed from all over the world. But it also reveals how his wealth, fame, and success depended on the international trade in enslaved peoples during the eighteenth century. Sloane’s statue has not been destroyed, but it no longer stands prominently in the Museum’s entrance hall. Like Delbourgo, I believe we need to examine and confront the deeds of previous generations, and his book appeared while I was grappling with similar dilemmas about Sloane’s predecessor as President of the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton.


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The Lunar Men : A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion

By Jenny Uglow

The Lunar Men : A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion

Why this book?

In her innovative Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow demonstrated the value of collective biography and the significance of collaborative activity in scientific research. Her characters are not lone heroes set above common humanity, but instead are real-life people whose ambitions and setbacks, joys and griefs, loves and enmities, political affiliations, and religious rivalries are brought gloriously alive through her empathetic use of hand-written letters and manuscripts. Unusually, wives and daughters feature as crucial actors in her stories of the interlinked Midlands families who drove Britain’s industrial progress.


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Bodies Politic : Disease, Death, and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900

By Roy Porter

Bodies Politic : Disease, Death, and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900

Why this book?

After I decided to include this old favourite of mine, I discovered to my great delight that Bodies Politic is about to be reissued in paperback. Roy Porter was the most prolific, fluent and insightful academic I have ever been privileged to know, and decades ago, his lectures inspired me to recognise how much fun historical research can be. In my own work, I have focused strongly on images – not only in textbooks, but also in journals, art galleries and albums. As Porter expertly discusses, studying caricatures is immensely enjoyable but also invaluable for uncovering concealed controversies, which provide crucial indicators of what people really thought.


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The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science

By Londa Schiebinger

The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science

Why this book?

Now over thirty years old, The Mind has no Sex? remains unsurpassed as a lucid, lively introduction to the status, activities and importance of women during the Enlightenment period. Its ironic title stems from the Cartesian belief that mind and body are separate, which implies – in principle, at least – that women are just as clever as men. But as Londa Schiebinger illustrates with copious examples and illustrations, equality was not even an aspiration, let alone a reality.


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The Ambiguous Frog: The Galvani-Volta Controversy on Animal Electricity

By Marcello Pera

The Ambiguous Frog: The Galvani-Volta Controversy on Animal Electricity

Why this book?

Electricity was by far the most popular science of the Enlightenment – ‘an Entertainment for Angels’, as one fictional young woman enthused. Marcello Pera’s slim book is delightfully written, but also philosophically profound. It surveys with great humour the diverse array of electrical devices, tricks and performances that were created as money-spinners in Europe’s rapidly commercialising society. But it also picks apart the confrontation between electricity’s two Italian figureheads: Luigi Galvani (who made frogs’ legs twitch) and Alessandro Volta (the Napoleonic devotee who introduced current electricity). These debates were not only about who was right, but also about how to win over converts and eliminate the opposition.


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