From 4,000,000 B.C. to the present, Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery describes the significant events of science. Placing these landmarks against the backdrop of world history, Isaac Asimov illustrates how science and cultural , social, and political events have affected each other.
Here is the discovery of fire, planets, and viruses, and how steamboats, telescopes, and spaceships were invented. Here are the circumstances relating to the first wheelbarrow (400), the fork (1071), eyeglasses (1249), cannon (1346), circumnavigation of the earth (1523), bifocal lenses (1784), and much more. Here is the invention of the elevator and how it revolutionized the face of the modern city; the discovery of the cause of polio, diptheria, and rickets; the reasons behind the names of planets, stars, and galaxies. Little-known facts—such as the date the fountain pen was invented (1884)—enliven the pages of this comprehensive timetable, adding a light but always informative touch to the narrative.
Historical relationships and personal relationships are highlighted in the “In Addition” section that follows the scientific facts of each year, and their relevance to science is illustrated throughout.
From the appearance of the first hominid in 4,000,000 B.C. to the present-day scientific discoveries in space and in the atom, Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery recreates the excitement and importance of science over the centuries.
One’s expectation would be that this book would be a horrible, horrible read— rather like Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. After all, like the Biographical Encyclopedia, it’s a massive volume recounting the entire history of (Western) science, and is organized more in the fashion of a reference book than an actual narrative history. That is, the story is divided into chronological periods, and the entire history of science for each period is recounted before we move on to the next. One would expect this to create a choppy narrative with little flow and hard to follow.
And yet, like it’s companion volume, Asimov’s Chronology of the World, it’s a remarkably fluid read and far more interesting than one would expect even from the Good Doctor. In fact, I’d rate this up with books like Asimov’s New Guide to Science as a definitive exploration of the scientific tradition which has such an impact on our lives. The chronological gaps do not seem as intrusive as they do in the Biographical Encyclopedia (where, in addition, the story jumps back and forth in time as well as back and forth between sciences). Indeed, the chronological framework does one good by locking one into an understanding of the gradual unfolding of knowledge—one is more aware than usual of the simultaneous, relative advances of the various sciences— what the world of science is like in its entirety at any given moment in time.
The result is a double-pronged threat, a volume which is both useful as a reference volume and simultaneously a most insightful look at the development of science.