History of Science Favourites

Besides fiction, I also enjoy picking up non-fiction reads from time to time, though I don’t do it as often as I’d like. History is one genre I like to read, but I also like at times to read popular science books (nothing too technical, though), and of course since I like both these, I also enjoy a combination of the two. Today, I’m sharing a few favourite reads that are both history and science, talking about people who contributed to science as well as the contributions they made. (One in my list is fiction, though).

To start off with, one of my absolute favourites (although this list isn’t in any order/ranking, as such), The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (2008). This book focuses on the lives of a few scientists/explorers, specifically Joseph Banks who made a voyage to Tahiti, William and Caroline Herschel with their discoveries in the skies, Humphry Davy and his work with the miner’s lamp, and again in the laboratory, Mungo Park’s adventures in Africa, and balloonists in England. But it is not only these people that he focuses on but life and discoveries in the time period that they lived in, their interactions with and influences on poets and writers of the time including Mary Shelley, John Keats, and Samuel Coleridge. Of course, these ‘scientists’ were themselves also not focused on science alone–they wrote poetry like Davy (even if not very good), or played music like William Herschel, and were truly part of the ‘Romantic’ Generation. I had come across this book in a newspaper review and felt I would like it, and when I read it finally I really enjoyed it very much–the writing, the stories themselves, also the range of references, which also extend to poetry, art, and fiction, and of course the pictures. This is a really wonderful read.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World by Laura J. Snyder (2011) was recommended to me by a friend, and pretty much picks up where Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder left off. It focuses on Charles Babbage (Homes too touches on his story), John Herschel (son of William Herschel), Richard Jones, and William Whewell, four friends with a shared love of science, who met at Cambridge, and formed a sort of breakfast club where they met every week to discuss science and share a good meal. Like the romantic scientists in Holmes’ books, these too were interested in poetry, architecture, and music besides science, and went on in their lives to contribute to a range of fields–architecture, economics, photography, astronomy, chemistry, biology, computers, and cryptography. Their contributions also professionalised the sciences.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh (1997), traces the journey of several mathematicians to solve a proposition in number theory given by lawyer and mathematician Pierre de Fermat in 1637 in a marginal note in his copy of Arithmetica, also mentioning that he had proof that wouldn’t fit in the margins. Essentially the book follows the quest of an English Mathematician, Andrew Wiles, who first came across the problem at the age of ten, and later after seven years of dedicated focus managed to crack the puzzle. But the book isn’t restricted to just Wiles, but also traces various others’ attempts at solving it over the ages, as well as developments and contributions to the field of mathematics alongside.

This one I’ve written quite often about on this page, and is one I discovered only after seeing it’s TV adaptation. Longitude: The True Story of a lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel (1995) tells the tale of John Harisson, a watchmaker who spent much of his life perfecting the marine chronometer, the first one that helped sailors fairly accurately calculate longitudes when at sea, saving precious lives and time. Of course, as with the other stories I’ve talked about above, it also goes into efforts in other quarters and by other people towards solving the same problem, and the contributions these made. Incidentally, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, fifth Astronomer Royal, who is pretty much the ‘villain’ of sorts of this piece (despite his contributions) comes across in much better light in Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003) is not very short but a very interesting read, taking us into the Universe from when it began to how it is today, through contributions of scholars and scientists, amateurs and professionals. The book highlights human intelligence, but also obstinacy at not wanting to accept new things, as well as the mindless destruction that human beings are constantly bringing about. It also brings to attention how much of our home, our planet earth, still remains a mystery (including what lies in its waters) leaving one with feelings of wonder and awe, curiosity, but also anger at our actions.

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2006), translated by Carol Brown Janeway is different from the others in my list since this is a novel and not non-fiction, but I am still including it in my list since it involves history and science, and is largely based on fact. This book, in a humorous way, tells the story of geographer, naturalist, explorer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss–two very different personalities who made great contributions to the world of science. While von Humboldt is out and about exploring (and measuring) the world, actually travelling, Gauss does so with his extraordinary mind and mathematical skills; they eventually meet in 1828. This was also recommended by a friend, and I enjoyed it very much.

These were a few of my favourite history of science reads. Do you like reading books with science themes? Which are some of your favourites? Have you read any of the ones in my list? What did you think of them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Image source: Pexels; All book cover images: Goodreads

Shelf Control #67: My Husband and Other Animals by Janaki Lenin #TBR #Animals #Memoirs

Wednesday the 4th of December–time again for Shelf Control, the first one this month. Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, simply pick a book from your TBR pile and write a post about it. Link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

Like last week, this week too I have picked a non-fiction read to feature in this post, but something quite different from last week (which was Modern India, a travelogue of sorts written in 1903-find that post here), My Husband & Other Animals by Janaki Lenin. Published in 2012, this is a collection of stories by the author describing what’s its like being married to Rom Whitaker, herpetologist, wildlife conservationist, and founder of the Madras Snake Park and Madras Crocodile Bank. From battling tree frogs colonising their house, to travelling to the wild in pursuit of snakes and enormous crocodiles, to playing with porcupines, and various other trysts with nature, they’ve certainly had an interesting and entertaining life.

Janaki Lenin

The Author: Janaki Lenin is a former film editor who is now a freelance journalist. She started writing in 2004, beginning with articles in wildlife magazines, and in 2010 starting a series of columns in the newspaper, The Hindu titled My Husband and Other Animals. It is a collection of these columns that forms this book. A sequel, My Husband and Other Animals 2 appeared in 2018. The author has also been working on issues relating to the management of human-wildlife conflict situations, contributing to various action plans and guidelines. (More about her on her page here).

I enjoy reading nature books in general (total tangent but Enid Blyton also wrote some wonderful ones) and this one being nature stories from closer home made me want to pick this up. Also, the title of the book and the fact that it has a foreword by Lee Durrell is making me think this collection is going to be something on the lines of Gerald Durrell’s writings which I really enjoy–both My Family and Other Animals which I loved and some of his other writings as well. I haven’t read anything by the author before but the collection has been described as ‘entertaining, playful, and downright amusing’. So I am certainly looking forward to reading this. The only thing that worries me is that while I love animals, snakes do give me the chills! I picked the book up, by the way, on kindle when it was on sale a while ago.

Do you enjoy reading nature books? Which ones are some of your favourites? have you read this one? How did you find it? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Info about the book is as always from goodreads (here), and on the author from goodreads (here) and the author’s page (here)

Image source: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6565101.Janaki_Lenin

Review: Wolf-Speaker by Tamora Pierce

My thanks to Harper Collins UK and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

This is the second of the Immortals series (my review of book 1 is here) by Tamora Pierce. The one opens with the wolves that Daine once hunted with trying to reach her and thinking over the news they’ve received of her from other creatures of the forest. Daine, now fourteen, meanwhile is heading with her mentor/teacher, the mage Numair Salmalin, their horses including Cloud, and Kitten the dragon baby, towards the pack for they have sent for her help as their new home, Dunlath is in trouble. The two-feet there are cutting down all the trees, mining incessantly, chasing away prey making the place unliveable for them, and ultimately for themselves. When they get there however, they find that it isn’t only the animals who are in trouble. A family of local nobles,the lords of Dunlath, are plotting treason against King Jonathan, and switching loyalties. Here they are aided by a whole group of rogue mages, who have some very powerful magic at their command, and don’t seem to care who or what they destroy. Circumstances become such that Daine is left all alone with only her animal friends and some immortal ones in Dunlath. The only other human helping her at first is ten-year-old Lady Maura, younger sister of the Lady Yolane. Daine begins to learn and practice more of what her wild magic makes her capable of,and these new found powers and her friends are what help her face and defeat the “villains” of the piece.

If anything, I think I enjoyed this one even more than the first book. The first book obviously had to set out the background, and introduce us to the world that Daine lived in, and the friends she found in Tortall, but this one to me felt more rounded as a story. I enjoyed watching Daine, who spends much of the novel away from human company, explore her new powers or rather the new uses she discovers of her magic. This helps her not only to do things she couldn’t earlier but view the world through the perspectives of her different animal friends. This was an element I really enjoyed. Pierce does a great job of highlighting the various things—sounds, smells, sights—that different animals would notice, and making one (even the reader) feel that they were looking through the eyes and mind of the animal in question. The adventure elements for me were fairly exciting as well. But besides these, the book also had some important messages to give. It may be set in a fantasy world, but even there “humans”continue to behave as they do in real life, destroying their environment,surroundings, disrespecting other living creatures for what they think is their own gain.  The other was about needing to understand creatures/life that is different, human or animal, as life, as creatures/people who have thoughts, feelings, concerns, and who shouldn’t be judged as monsters or evil in an off-handed way. Here Maura, who is scared of some of Daine’s “friends” manages to shows Daine how she herself might be prejudiced unfairly against some others. Pierce manages to show us that even people who are “good” aren’t always flawless and may have their own prejudices and discriminatory attitudes that they need to address—another message extremely relevant for our world. Once again a wonderful read, in which I especially enjoyed all the animals and Daine’s interactions with them!

Shadows of Days Past

I didn’t think I’d be returning to writing about poetry quite so soon, but when reading Wives and Daughters (which I’m reading in serial with a group on goodreads), I found a reference to John Gilpin (Cowper’s The Diverting History of John Gilpin), which I was all set to revisit during the week and write about, since it is among the funniest poems I’ve read so far (though yes, I still haven’t read very many poems overall). But anyway with a busy week I never did get down to reading it (I hope to sooner than later and will write about it). But I also ended up remembering Kipling’s The Way Through the Woods which I first read some years ago as part of his book Rewards and Fairies, the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and also liked very much.

This beautiful (and haunting) poem takes me (or rather my thoughts) to two different things each time I read it. Kipling writes in it of a road that “They shut…Seventy years ago” which has been reclaimed by the woods, the weather, and the rain, where there are now “coppice and heath” and “thin anemones”, so

now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods.

Part of this poem paints this picture of nature becoming “free” again, to grow, to go about life with no fear—the ring-dove brooding, badgers rolling at ease, trout-ringed pools, and the otter, whistling to his mate, for:

“(They fear not men in the woods
Because they see so few)”

Man’s presence and influence more often than not spells trouble for nature, constraining it rather than allowing it to blossom, even to be, destroying it for “development”, or his own greed, or mere entertainment. So of course the description of a place free of man’s influence, his interference, which forms most of the first stanza and part of the second as well, leaves one with a sense of peace, of freedom, rejoicing in her joy, watching the badger roll, or listening to the otter whistle to its mate, none worried that someone might harm them.

The second stanza on the other hand, is rather haunting, for while one mightn’t know that there was once a road through the woods,

“Yet if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late…”

The shadows of the past are still there:

“You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through,
The misty solitudes,
As though they practically knew,
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods!”

One can’t see the road through the woods anymore but one can feel its presence—its memories and shadows remain, and perhaps the wood remembers where the road once was. It feels as through past and present are there at the same time. Yet these shadows, though uncanny, are not really frightening—they bring back memories, make one think of the days past, and perhaps also the thought that where man once was there is always a mark of some kind.

But one also can’t help but wonder when one is lost in this picture, whether it is that this is the only way that the two can coexist? Nature blooming, joyous, thriving, and at peace only in a place where there is no human presence―just shadows of what was―no longer anyone to disturb or destroy…