The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow

Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon.  Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.

If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.

These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world;  through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces.  The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.

The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat.  To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.

It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive.  The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives.  It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era. Continue reading “The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow”

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A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

What is archaeology? The word may bring to mind images of golden pharaohs and lost civilizations, or Neanderthal skulls and Ice Age cave art. Archaeology is all of these, but also far more: the only science to encompass the entire span of human history—more than three million years!

This Little History tells the riveting stories of some of the great archaeologists and their amazing discoveries around the globe: ancient Egyptian tombs, Mayan ruins, the first colonial settlements at Jamestown, mysterious Stonehenge, the incredibly preserved Pompeii, and many, many more. In forty brief, exciting chapters, the book recounts archaeology’s development from its eighteenth-century origins to its twenty-first-century technological advances, including remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery techniques that have revolutionized the field. Shining light on the most intriguing events in the history of the field, this absolutely up-to-date book illuminates archaeology’s controversies, discoveries, heroes and scoundrels, global sites, and newest methods for curious readers of every age.

Part of the Little Histories series, A Little of History of Archaeology is a good overview of the discipline.  As befitting of the subject, Fagan slowly uncovers the beginnings of the pursuit from King Charles of Naples, at Herculaneum, up until the present day.  The enthusiastic introduction sets the book up nicely, throwing in some choice, lesser known facts to hook the reader and begin a globe-trotting journey through time.

We start the journey proper in Egypt, and travel all the way through to the present day, seeing the gradual honing of the archaeological craft, from haphazard digs chasing treasures – real or imagined – to the more careful, professional approach which has led us to a deep and ever-changing understanding of the past.

Throughout we meet some fascinating characters; adventurers, vicars, museum curators, army officers, and the like who all contribute in some way to the learning of an art and the teasing of knowledge, quite literally out of the ground, through their failures successes and frustrations.  The writing style is very light and everything is set out in a simple manner giving the reader an engrossing narrative that can be dipped in and out of at anytime without undue confusion. Continue reading “A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan”

Penguin Great Ideas

Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.

WP_20160612_001It turns out I have managed to acquire seven of the one hundred great ideas that Penguin is selling at the cheap price of £4.99 without once realising their connection.  Two things strike me as faintly absurd, firstly that I would own seven books in a set but owing to the vast distance between the corners of my amassed collection and a poor memory, that I wouldn’t have made the connection earlier.

Secondly the price which is a steal, it enables people to pick up a bite sized portion of a new author to see what all the fuss is about and it also brings the reader loads of fascinating essays at a ridiculously decent price as well.  Who would not wish to dabble in such studies that have changed the way we view the world and in a good few instances how we actually live.

From tumultuous periods of history to thoughtful essays, the books empower the mind and allow us to read the key thoughts that defined past generations.  These are of course extracts from other books so why pick these up when you can pick these plus more in a book?  Well partly it is the need to know what texts these authors are famous for and also to gauge whose style I get on with so I can chart my reading to take the path of least resistance. Continue reading “Penguin Great Ideas”

The Silent Landscape – Richard Corfield

0719565316Deep below the earth’s great oceans lies an alien world that we have only just begun to explore.  The quest to know more about this secret domain began in earnest in 1872 when HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth on the first ever sea voyage devoted exclusively to science.  Her scientists and crew sailed from the endangered coral reefs of the Caribbean to the trackless depths beneath the western Pacific, braving stifling heat and stupefying cold, on an expedition that remains perhaps the greatest oceanographic mission of all time.

As far as epic voyages go HMS Challenger is up there with the greatest, easily as monumental in impact as the more famous HMS Beagle’s, taking four years to travel 68,900 miles from England to Brazil and South Africa.  Before taking in Antarctica and returning home by way of Australia, Hong Kong and Hawaii all on a vessel measuring 200 by 40 foot.  It’s little wonder 269 of the crew deserted.

This, the last great voyage of the Victorian age and is brought to life through generous helpings of the crew’s diaries which are used to humanise the scientific endeavours and keep the tone light enough to encourage the reader’s inquisitiveness before giving out some fascinating scientific histories.

whilst focussing on life on the ship its dual existence being both a rollercoaster of monotony and of astonishment, the author uses the many discoveries as a springboard to educate the reader not only on how it enhanced our understanding of the seas but also how the geology of our ancient planet was formed.  The Challenger expedition found the deepest part of the sea, The Mariana Trench in the Pacific, numerous new species of plants and animals helping to confirm Darwin’s theories, the idea for plate tectonics and of course kept alive the tradition of looking down on people and places from all other nations as inferior. Continue reading “The Silent Landscape – Richard Corfield”