The best books to make you think differently about the history of science

Who am I?

The discovery of the structure of DNA, the genetic material was one of the biggest milestones in science–but few people realise that a crucial unsung hero in this story was the humble wool fibre. But the Covid pandemic has changed all that and as a result we’ve all become acutely away of both the impact of science on our lives and our need to be more informed about it. Having long ago hung up my white coat and swapped the lab for the library to be a historian of science, I think we need a more honest, authentic understanding of scientific progress rather than the over-simplified accounts so often found in textbooks. 


I wrote...

The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and How Wool Wove a Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix

By Kersten T. Hall,

Book cover of The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and How Wool Wove a Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix

What is my book about?

The discovery of the structure of DNA, the genetic material was one of the biggest milestones in science–but few people realise that s crucial unsung hero in this story was the humble wool fibre. This was thanks to the scientists William Astbury and Florence Bell, whose research for the local textile industries of West Yorkshire led them to make the very first attempt to solve the structure of DNA. In so doing, they paved the way for the later success of the more famous scientific duo of James Watson and Francis Crick, but Astbury’s real scientific legacy went far beyond DNA and was to be found in a rather unusual overcoat that may well have a stark new relevance in a world scarred by Covid-19.

The books I picked & why

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Science and Islam: A History

By Ehsan Masood,

Book cover of Science and Islam: A History

Why this book?

As the Western Roman Empire crumbled in the early 5th century, science and learning were extinguished for a thousand years…or, perhaps not. As Ehsan Masood shows in this highly enjoyable book to accompany a BBC series, Islamic scholars did much more than simply blow on the cinders of ancient Greek learning to keep them burning from the 8th to the 16th century. Names such as ibn-Sina, Jabir ibn-Hayyan, and Al-Khwarizmi may not be quite so well known to Western European ears as Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes, but Masood shows that they were actively involved in medicine, chemistry and mathematics during this time. So go with Masood on a journey through the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, and beyond to be persuaded that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were perhaps not quite so dark as we’ve been led to believe.


God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

By James Hannam,

Book cover of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

Why this book?

The Middle Ages in Europe weren't quite the festering stew of ignorance, superstition, and pointless theological arguments about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin as they have often been portrayed. In God’s Philosophers, James Hannam offers a refreshing challenge to the orthodox portrayal that all was darkness until the dawn of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He also reveals how, far from being the enemy of science, religious belief actually stimulated scientific enquiry during this time. Moreover, while Isaac Newton may have once remarked that he had seen further thanks only to standing on the shoulders of giants (a remark which Hannam points out was not actually original at the time), many of those giants–such as the scholars Nicole Oresme and John Buridan had been leading lights of Medieval science.


A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

By Patricia Fara,

Book cover of A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War

Why this book?

When, in the course of my research for my book, I first came across a newspaper article from 1939 reporting on the work of physicist Florence Bell with the stunned headline "Woman Scientist Explains," I think it took me about 5 minutes to recover from laughing. It’s a pity that the local press were more interested in the fact that Bell was a woman rather than her actual science, because only a year earlier she had shown for the first time how X-rays could reveal the regular, ordered structure of DNA. And as an undergraduate of Girton College, Cambridge, Bell’s talents as a physicist should have come as no surprise. For as historian Patricia Fara shows, Girton and the other all-female college, Newnham, were both intellectual crucibles from which emerged a generation of distinguished scientists such as physicist Hertha Ayrton, campaigning chemists Ida Smedley and Martha Whiteley, to name but a few.


Bittersweet: Diabetes, Insulin, and the Transformation of Illness

By Chris Feudtner,

Book cover of Bittersweet: Diabetes, Insulin, and the Transformation of Illness

Why this book?

The discovery of insulin in early 1922 was a medical milestone that has since saved countless lives–my own included. Until this moment, a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes was a certain death sentence. But as diabetes clinician and historian of medicine, Chris Feudtner points out, the success of insulin has distorted historical accounts of diabetes by marginalising the experience of the patient in favour of narratives that focus on the development of medical technology to treat them. And Feudtner’s diagnosis is confined not just to diabetes but to the history of medicine in general. Following a personal epiphany that patients have an existence beyond X-rays and blood tests, Feudtner set out to address this problem by writing a history of diabetes as told from the perspective of patients. He does so magnificently and offers important insights about our relationship with technology that extend well beyond the treatment of diabetes.


Fabulous Science : Fact and Fiction in the History of Scientific Discovery

By John Waller,

Book cover of Fabulous Science : Fact and Fiction in the History of Scientific Discovery

Why this book?

Gregor Mendel was a lone genius who, pottering with pea plants, unlocked the secrets of modern genetics; Charles Darwin boldly took on the power of the Church with his theory of evolution; chance favoured the prepared mind of Louis Pasteur…right? Well, no, not according to historian John Waller who takes a sledgehammer to the heavily mythologised historical accounts of scientific discovery that are so often found in textbooks before kindly picking up the pieces to rearrange them into a much more honest and authentic account of how science works. Physicist-turned-philosopher Thomas Kuhn once warned that trying to learn the history of science from the pages of a science textbook was no better than assuming an intimate knowledge of a foreign country and its customs after having briefly thumbed through a glossy travel brochure. If the past is indeed a foreign country, then Waller is a reliable local guide who speaks the language and knows the customs intimately.


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