The best books on enlightenment science

Who am I?

I’m an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and I’ve written several popular books as well as featuring in TV/radio programmes such as In Our Time and Start the Week (BBC). I love the challenge of explaining to general audiences why the history of science is such an exciting and important subject – far more difficult than writing an academic paper. I believe that studying the past is crucial for understanding how we’ve reached the present – and the whole point of doing that is to improve the future. My underlying preoccupations involve exploring how and why western science has developed over the last few centuries to become the dominant (and male-dominated) culture throughout the world.

I wrote...

Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton's London Career

By Patricia Fara,

Book cover of Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton's London Career

What is my book about?

The story of Isaac Newton's decades in London as an ambitious cosmopolitan gentleman, President of London's Royal Society, Master of the Mint, and investor in the slave trade. Isaac Newton is celebrated throughout the world as a great scientific genius who conceived the theory of gravity. But in his early fifties, he abandoned his life as a reclusive university scholar to spend three decades in London, a long period of metropolitan activity that is often overlooked. Enmeshed in Enlightenment politics and social affairs, Newton participated in the linked spheres of early science and imperialist capitalism. Instead of the quiet cloisters and dark libraries of Cambridge's all-male world, he now moved in fashionable London society, which was characterized by patronage relationships, sexual intrigues, and ruthless ambition.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By James Delbourgo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Collecting the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Leo Gershoy Award
Winner of the Louis Gottschalk Prize
A Times Book of the Week
A Guardian Book of the Week

"A wonderfully intelligent book."
-Linda Colley

"A superb biography-humane, judicious and as passionately curious as Sloane himself."
-Times Literary Supplement

When the British Museum opened its doors in 1759, it was the first free national public museum in the world. Collecting the World tells the story of the eccentric collector whose thirst for universal knowledge brought it into being.

A man of insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging interests, Hans Sloane assembled a collection of antiquities, oddities, and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jenny Uglow,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Lunar Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical.

With a small band of allies they formed the…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Roy Porter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bodies Politic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a historical tour de force, Roy Porter takes a critical look at representations of the body in death, disease and health, and at images of the healing arts in Britain from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century. Porter's key assumptions are that the human body is the chief signifier and communicator of all manner of meanings religious, moral, political and medical and that pre-scientific medicine was an art which depended heavily on ritual, rhetoric and theatre. Porter argues that great symbolic weight was attached to contrasting conceptions of the healthy and diseased body, and that such ideas were mapped…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Londa Schiebinger,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Mind Has No Sex? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As part of his attempt to secure a place for women in scientific culture, the Cartesian Francois Poullain de la Barre asserted as long ago as 1673 that "the mind has no sex." In this rich and comprehensive history of women's contributions to the development of early modern science, Londa Schiebinger examines the shifting fortunes of male and female equality in the sphere of the intellect. Schiebinger counters the "great women" mode of history and calls attention to broader developments in scientific culture that have been obscured by time and changing circumstance. She also elucidates a larger issue: how gender…

Book cover of The Ambiguous Frog: The Galvani-Volta Controversy on Animal Electricity

Why did I love 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.

By Marcello Pera,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ambiguous Frog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How do ideas become accepted by the scientific community? How and why do scientists choose among empirically equivalent theories? In this pathbreaking book translated from the Italian, Marcello Pera addresses these questions by exploring the politics, rhetoric, scientific practices, and metaphysical assumptions that entered into the famous Galvani-Volta controversy of the late eighteenth century. This lively debate erupted when two scientists, each examining the muscle contractions of a dissected frog in contact with metal, came up with opposing but experimentally valid explanations of the phenomenon. Luigi Galvani, a doctor and physiologist, believed that he had discovered animal electricity (electrical body…

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