READING THE HISTORY OF WESTERN SCIENCE
A List of Good Places To Start
Compiled and Edited by A. BOWDOIN VAN RIPER
for the Committee on Education of the History of Science Society
THIS LIST MAY BE REPRODUCED IN WHOLE OR IN PART WITHOUT FURTHER PERMISSION
Thousands of books have been written on the history of Western science. The list below gives details and brief descriptions of a hundred or so that are especially good introductions to the field (or parts of it). The list is, by design, selective and idiosyncratic. The books on it were chosen because they combine solid scholarship, broad coverage, and an accessible style. Most include extensive bibliographies of more specialized books and articles. Virtually all are in print as of this writing [Fall 1998], and should be readily available through large bookstores and their on-line equivalents.
The list does not include articles, primary sources, or books that deal only in part with historical issues. Nor, for the moment, does it include works on the histories of mathematics, technology, and medicine. It makes no attempt to include non-Western scientific traditions. These limits are designed both to keep the list to a manageable size and to keep it within the bounds of its compilers' expertise. Like all arbitrary limits, they are subject to change.
Information on publishers, publication dates, and in-print status were accurate as of this writing and will be updated periodically if necessary. The abbreviations "U" (for university) and "UP" (for university press) are used throughout.
Thanks to all who contributed suggestions and commented on various drafts of the list, especially: Stephen Brush, Rich Kremer, David Wilson, Herbert Folsom, Susan Abrams, and Mark Solovey. Special thanks to Constance Malpas, who encouraged the project at its outset, and to Melissa Oliver, who made possible its transition to the web. Suggested additions, deletions, corrections, or other changes are welcomed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alic, Margaret. Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century. Beacon Press, 1986. A collection of relatively brief biographies, indispensable for its scope and completeness. Shows, in considerable detail, that there's more to the subject than Marie Curie and Rachel Carson.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Biographical Dictionary of Science and Technology, second revised edition. Doubleday, 1982. Brief biographical sketches of more than 1000 individuals--mostly male physical scientists from the last two centuries. Entries provide little social or intellectual context, and minimal cross-referencing, but basic data is reliable.
Bynum, W. F., E, J. Browne, and Roy Porter. Dictionary of the History of Science. Princeton UP, 1984. Seven hundred articles dealing with the history of specific scientific ideas and concepts. Extensive cross-referencing, indexing, and bibliographies make this a useful supplement to individual- and event-oriented works.
Gillispie, Charles Coulston, ed. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 16 volumes. Scribners, 1970-80. Easily the most complete history-of-science reference source available. Multi-page entries on major scientists are frequently the best work available on their subjects, and can serve as useful introductions to major periods and subjects.
Olby, R. C., et al. Companion to the History of Modern Science. Routledge, 1990. Not a reference book in the conventional sense, but a collection of sixty-seven authoritative essays on the methods and contents of the history of science. The essays are grouped into six broad sections: Neighboring Disciplines, Analytical Perspectives, Philosophical Problems, Turning Points, Topics and Interpretations, and Themes.
Alioto, Anthony. A History of Western Science, 2nd ed. Prentice-Hall, 1992. Broad, sweeping overview that emphasizes science as a way of knowing rather than as a body of knowledge. Emphasizes ancient, medieval, early modern topics.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, updated edition. Harper Collins, 1994. Scientific and technological breakthroughs from antiquity to the present, narrated in Asimov's characteristic (learned, breezy, accessible) style. Treats discoveries in social and cultural context.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. U. of Chicago Press, 1970. Landmark theoretical study of how scientific communities function and how new scientific ideas become accepted. Among the most influential history-of-science studies ever written.
Marks, John M. Science and the Making of the Modern World. Heinemann, 1984. Focuses, as its title suggests, on the social dimensions of science, mostly after 1650. Designed as an undergraduate textbook, offering broad introductions to many science-and-society topics treated in greater depth by others.
Mason, Stephen F. A History of the Sciences. MacMillan, 1962. [older editions titled: Main Currents of Scientific Thought] Nuts-and-bolts history of science emphasizing theories, data, and experiments at the expense of social context. Concise text and broad coverage compensates for dry writing style and sometimes dated interpretation.
Toulmin, Stephen, and June Goodfield. The Architecture of Matter. U of Chicago Press, 1982 . History of ideas about the nature of matter, animate and inanimate, from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. Selective, rather than comprehensive, with an emphasis on recurring themes.
Toulmin, Stephen, and June Goodfield. The Fabric of the Heavens. U of Chicago Press, 1982 . Survey of astronomy, physics, and their relationship from the Babylonians (c. 1700 BC) to Isaac Newton (c. 1700 AD).
Crombie, A. C. The History of Science from Augustine to Galileo. Dover, 1996. One of the definitive works on the history of medieval science, originally published in 1952. Strong focus on scientific ideas, with comparatively less attention to social context than (say) Lindberg.
Grant, Edward. Physical Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge UP, 1978. Covers the origins of medieval science and its institutions [treated in more depth in Grant (1996)] and basic medieval ideas about the motion of celestial and terrestrial bodies.
Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge UP, 1996. Traces the rediscovery, translation, and transformation of ancient Greek science by medieval scholars, and the intersection of Aristotelian and Christian thought.
Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. U. of Chicago Press, 1992. The best, most comprehensive introduction to the history of science in the ancient and medieval West. Aimed at undergraduates and non-specialists, with careful explanations of ideas and the social contexts in which they evolved.
Lloyd, G. E. R. Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle and Greek Science After Aristotle. Norton, 1974 & 1975. Compact, wide-ranging surveys of ancient Greek scientific ideas from their origins in the 6th century BC to their absorption by the Romans.
Neugebauer, Otto. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, 2nd ed. Dover, 1969. Originally published in 1957, and still among the best surveys of ancient mathematics, physics, and astronomy.
Cohen, I. Bernard. The Birth of a New Physics, revised edition. Norton, 1985. The origins of classical physics in the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Leibniz, and Newton. Aimed at undergraduates and general readers; uses math sparingly.
Crowe, Michael. Theories of the World from Antiquity to the Copernican Revolution. Dover, 1990. Leads the reader through the internal logic of Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, Copernican, and other cosmologies. History of astronomy seen from the inside, for those comfortable with high-school level math geometry and algebra.
Dobbs, B. J. T., and Margaret Jacob. Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism. Humanities Press, 1995. Brief survey of Newton's ideas and their cultural impact in the 18th century, by two leading authorities on the period.
Hall, A. Rupert. The Revolution in Science, 1500-1750, 3rd ed. Addison-Wesley, 1983. Comprehensive, densely written history of the origins of modern science, originally published in the 1950s. Focuses on ideas more than social institutions, and physical more than biological sciences.
Hankins, Thomas L. Science in the Enlightenment. Cambridge UP, 1985. Comprehensive, balanced survey of scientific ideas, organized roughly by discipline.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper, 1990. Provocative re-examination of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the rise of a mechanical worldview sanctioned the exploitation of nature and the subordination of women.
Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Harvard UP, 1989. Examines both the role of women in 17th and 18th century science and scientific attitudes toward women that emerged during the same period.
Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. U. of Chicago Press, 1998. Iconoclastic view of the Scientific Revolution (particularly its social dimension) which questions its existence. Divided into three sections: "What Was Known?"; "How Was It Known?"; and "What Was the Knowledge For?"
Brock, William H. The Norton History of Chemistry. Norton, 1993. Chemistry gets the Norton treatment--comprehensive, balanced, and detailed enough to be useful without becoming overwhelming. The best single volume on the subject for non-specialists.
Cassidy, David. Einstein and Our World. Humanities Press, 1995. Brief, non-technical survey of Einstein's ideas, scientific and otherwise, and their impact on the first half of the 20th century. A compact case study of the intersection of science and culture.
Cline, Barbara Lovett. Men Who Made a New Physics: Physicists and Quantum Theory. U. of Chicago Press, 1987. Biography-oriented history of one of the revolutions in 20th-century physics, written for non-specialists without a background in quantum theory.
Crowe, Michael J. Modern Theories of the Universe from Herschel to Hubble. Dover, 1994. Scientific, historical, and philosophical introduction to modern astronomy and cosmology, in the vein of Crowe's Theories of the World (see previous section). Like the earlier work, assumes a high-school level grasp of mathematics.
Harman, P. M. Energy, Force, and Matter: The Conceptual Development of Nineteenth Century Physics. Cambridge UP, 1982. Currently out of print, but worth seeking out for its brief but comprehensive review of a particularly innovative period in the history of physics.
Knight, David. Ideas in Chemistry. Rutgers UP, 1992. Big-picture history of chemistry from its origins in medieval alchemy through its glory days in the 18th and early 19th century to its reduced, 20th century status as a "service science." Covers key people, ideas, and experiments, but not a comprehensive "names and dates" compendium.
North, John D. The Norton History of Astronomy and Cosmology. Norton, 1995. The most complete, up-to-date, one-volume introduction to the history of astronomy and cosmology. Includes, as many earlier works do not, material on astronomy in ancient, non-Western societies and on space-based astronomy.
Nye, Mary Jo. Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800-1940. Twayne, 1996. History, written for students and non-specialists, of the parallel development of modern chemistry and physics. Discusses changes in disciplinary boundaries, career structures, and institutions, as well as ideas.
Allen, Garland. Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century AND William Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge UP, 1978 & 1977. Compact, wide-ranging surveys of biological thought at both the macro- and microscopic levels. Densely packed, but non-technical. Out of print, but still widely available in libraries.
Bowler, Peter J. Evolution: The History of an Idea, 2nd ed. U. of California Press, 1989. Textbook-style survey of evolutionary theory, with side excursions into the history of geology and paleontology. Usefully summarizes Bowler's extensive contributions to the field.
Bowler, Peter J. The Norton History of the Environmental Sciences. Norton, 1993. Despite its title, primarily a history of ideas about the history of the Earth and of its living inhabitants, with some attention to ecology, meteorology, and oceanography. Probably the best single-volume treatment of its chosen subjects.
Gohau, Gabriel. A History of Geology. Rutgers UP, 1990. The best all-around history of geology for non-specialists. Written by an Italian, it avoids the heavy Anglo-American bias of many older histories.
Judson, Horace Freeland. The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology, expanded edition. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1996. Long and detailed, but non-technical, history of 20th century molecular biology.
Kohn, David, ed. The Darwinian Heritage. Princeton UP, 1985. The vast literature on Darwin and Darwinism embraces a great variety of subjects and approaches. This thick collection of articles provides a representative cross-section. Its table of contents could serve as an impromptu "Who's Who" of the "Darwin Industry."
Magner, Lois. A History of the Life Sciences, 2nd edition. Marcel Dekker, 1994. Comprehensive history of the biological sciences from the ancient world to the present day. Divided chronologically for the period through the Renaissance, thematically thereafter.
Schiebinger, Londa. Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Beacon Press, 1995. Traces the role of 17th and 18th-century science, particularly Linnaean taxonomy, in establishing the European male as the paradigm of all humankind.
Serafini, Anthony. The Epic History of Biology. Plenum Press, 1993. Sweeping, popular history of Western biology and medicine from the ancient Near East to the present. Old-fashioned emphasis on the role of "revolutionary" thinkers challenging "prejudices and dogmas" of their times in order to advance knowledge.
Thrower, Norman J. W. Maps and Civilization. U. of Chicago Press, 1996. Traces the development of cartography and the social and political uses to which it was put, touching on non-Western as well as Western maps and societies.
Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge UP, 1994. The most recent edition of the classic history of ecological ideas and their cultural impact, by a leading figure in the study of environmental history.
Degler, Carl N. In Search of Human Nature. Oxford UP, 1992. A survey of the history of the social sciences in (mostly) 20th century America, using the decline and revival of Darwinism as a central organizing theme.
Gordon, Scott. The History and Philosophy of Social Science. Routledge, 1991. Intellectual history of social scientists' attempts to develop comprehensive explanations of human behavior. Chronologically organized, with additional chapters on topics of long-term interest to social scientists, such as the relationship between the social and the biological in shaping human culture.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. Norton, 1982. Historical and passionate critique of what Gould sees as the misuse of biology to explain and justify existing social inequalities. Case studies include intelligence testing, brain-size comparisons between races, and the vanished 19th century science of "criminal anthropology."
Herman, Ellen. The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts. U. of California Press, 1995. The history of psychology's intersection with American politics and society in the 20th century. Topics covered include gender, race, and the politics of the Cold War.
Leahey, Thomas Hardy. A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Thought, 4th edition. Prentice-Hall, 1997. Standard, textbook-style history of psychology. Emphasizes ideas rather than social or cultural context, both internal and external to the discipline.
Lewin, Roger. Bones of Contention, 2nd edition. U. of Chicago Press, 1997. Episodes in the history of 20th century paleoanthropology, chosen to illustrate the contentious nature of the field. Highly readable, with anecdotes and character sketches leavening the explanations of competing theories.
Porter, Theodore M. The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900. Princeton UP, 1985. Though not limited to the social sciences, this work examines the rise of a most powerful and versatile intellectual tool.
Ross, Dorothy. Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge UP, 1991. Surveys the history of the social sciences in their American cultural context, arguing for the central role of an ideology of American exceptionalism in shaping them.
Smith, Roger. The Norton History of the Human Sciences. Norton, 1997. One-stop shopping for readers interested in a broad overview of how the major social sciences emerged. Like all the Norton histories of the sciences, its stated goal is to make recent scholarship available in a compact, readable form.
Stiebing, William. Uncovering the Past: A History of Archaeology. Oxford UP, 1994. Half a history of archaeology, half an introduction to the current "state of the art." Less comprehensive and scholarly than Bruce Trigger's A History of Archaeological Thought (Cambridge UP, 1989), but more accessible to non-archaeologists.
Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution.  U. of Chicago Press, 1982. AND The Ethnographer's Magic. U. of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Collections of essays on the history of anthropology that make up in depth of insight what they lack in breadth and easy accessibility. Challenging, but worth it.
Ben-David, Joseph. The Scientist's Role in Society. U. of Chicago Press, 1984. Brief, pioneering study of the historical sociology of science, which uses case studies from various Western societies to show how scientists' now-central role in society emerged. Out-of-print, but worth seeking out.
Dupree, A. Hunter. Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities.  Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. Still the standard source for the period up to World War II; comprehensive and detailed without sacrificing readability. For the post-WWII period, see Greenberg (1967).
Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man. See "Social Sciences," above.
Greenberg, Daniel S. The Politics of Pure Science: An Inquiry into the Relationship between Science and Government in the United States. New American Library, 1967. Thirty years old and thus somewhat dated, but remains a solid introduction to the interdependency of science and the US government in the mid-20th century.
Jacob, Margaret. Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West. Oxford UP, 1996. Surveys the interrelations of science, industry, and society in France and, particularly, in Britain. Begins with the cultural and scientific legacies of Newton and Descartes and ends in the early stages of industrialization.
Josephson, Paul R. Totalitarian Science and Technology. Humanities Press, 1996. Most introductory studies of modern science and technology in their cultural context focus on democratic or proto-democratic societies. This brief volume provides another view, by focusing on Germany under the Nazis and the USSR under Stalin.
Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. U. of California Press, 1985. History of Anglo-American attempts to improve the human race through selective breeding, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Sober, scrupulously detailed, and often frightening.
Larson, Edward J. Sumer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Basic Books, 1997. Detailed narrative and analysis of perhaps the single most famous collision of science and American culture: the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925. Illuminates the roots and continuing relevance of the trial, while debunking the simplistic "Ignorance vs. Truth" interpretation enshrined by the play and film Inherit the Wind.
Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution, updated edition. Oxford UP, 1989. A history of anti-evolution and pro-creationist legislation in the United States, and the court battles that resulted. Elegantly written and incisively argued by a lawyer-historian.
Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity. Humanities Press, 1995. The history of late-19th and early-20th-century attempts to create a better human race by applying scientists' emerging knowledge of genetics. Briefly links its main story to present-day concerns, but useful primarily as a brief synopsis of material covered at length by Gould (1981) and Kevles (1985).
Pyenson, Lewis, and Susan Sheets-Pyenson. The Norton History of Science in Society. Norton, 1997. Comprehensive survey, from antiquity to the present, of the rise of scientific institutions and the interaction of science and Western culture. Discusses the rise of learned societies, museums, and other specialized scientific institutions, as well as the shaping of science by social concerns.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  Touchstone, 1995. Massive, prize-winning history of the design, building, testing, and aftermath of the first atomic bombs. An unmatched treatment of the biggest of all Big Science projects, coupled with a substantial history of pre-WWII nuclear physics and detailed portraits of Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer, among others.
Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge UP, 1991. A comprehensive narrative/analysis of the changing relationship between scientific and religious ideas, set in the context of recent history-of-science scholarship. Dense, detailed, and demanding, but written with acute insight and brilliant clarity of expression.
Burnham, John C. How Superstition Won and Science Lost: Popularizing Science and Health in the United States. Rutgers UP, 1987. Now out of print, but worth seeking out for its thoughtful--if somewhat depressing--analysis of the intersection of scientific and popular understandings of the world.
Haynes, Roslynn D. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Surveys literary depictions of scientists from the Middle Ages to today, and traces the emergence of such stock characters as the Alchemist, the Scientist-Hero, and the Clueless Genius.
Landau, Misia. Narratives of Human Evolution. Yale UP, 1991. A unique perspective on narratives of human evolution from Darwin to the present, arguing that they mirror the structure of hero-on-a-quest folktales. An elegant argument for literature's impact on science.
Levine, George. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction. U. of Chicago Press, 1991 [reprint]. A pioneering study of science's influence on major literary figures, and an introduction to the rapidly growing science-and-literature field. Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots (1984) is also excellent, but now out of print.
Lindberg, David C., and Ronald L. Numbers. God and Nature: Historical Perspectives on the Encounter Between Science and Christianity. U. of California Press, 1986. A collection of essays by an all-star team of historians of science that collectively revise the old "warfare" model of science's relationship to religion. Many of the individual essays remain the best treatments of their subjects.
Nelkin, Dorothy, and M. Susan Lindee. The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. W. H. Freeman, 1995. Surveys the nature and impact of popular ideas about scientific issues connected with genetics, including DNA fingerprinting, the Human Genome Project, and genetic testing.
Nelkin, Dorothy. Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, revised edition. W. H. Freeman, 1995. Wide-ranging critique of the often-symbiotic relationship between scientists and the press. Treats journalists' depictions of scientists and the scientific process, as well as their handling of specific theories.
Rydell, Robert. All the World's A Fair AND World of Fairs. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987 & 1993. Analyzes the American World's Fairs of, respectively, 1876-1916 and 1919-1939 as artfully constructed displays of American attitudes toward science, technology, race, gender, and cultural progress.
Tuomey, Christopher. Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. Rutgers UP, 1996. Analyzes the impact on public policy of most Americans' willingness to grant science great cultural authority while remaining vaguely aware, at best, of science's methods and results.
Abir-Am, Pnina G., and Dorinda Outram. Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in the Sciences, 1789-1979. Rutgers UP, 1987. Pioneering collection of chapter-length biographical studies of women scientists, some familiar, most not.
Brennan, Richard. Heisenberg Probably Slept Here. John Wiley, 1996. Chapter-length biographies of seven major 20th-century physicists, treating their ideas as well as their careers. Covers, in addition to the title character, Einstein, Feynmann, Planck, and others.
Brian, Dennis. Albert Einstein: A Life. John Wiley, 1996. Written by an outsider after the recent, full(er) disclosure of Einstein's personal papers. Elementary explanations of his science punctuate a survey of his public and personal lives. Balanced on controversial issues.
Christianson, Gale E. Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae. U. of Chicago Press, 1996. The first full-scale biography of a man whose work transformed 20th century astronomy by establishing solid evidence for the expansion of the universe. Also deals squarely with Hubble's less-than-attractive personality.
Desmond, Adrian, and James R. Moore. Darwin. Warner Books, 1991. A comprehensive, readable one-volume biography placing Darwin's scientific work firmly in its Victorian social and cultural context. Janet Browne's Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1996), the first of a projected two-volume work, is also excellent.
Geison, Gerald L. The Private Science of Louis Pasteur. Princeton UP, 1995. Detailed study of Pasteur's life and work, rooted in the author's careful analysis of his laboratory notebooks. Careful and even-handed in placing Pasteur's ideas and methods in the context of his times, but topples a number of cherished Pasteur myths.
Hoffman, Banesh, and Helen Dukas. Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel. New American Library, 1989. Short, fond biography of Einstein by two colleagues, with dense-but-comprehensible explanations of his science interspersed with rose-colored stories of his personal life.
Keller, Evelyn Fox. A Feeling for the Organism. Award-winning biography of pioneer geneticist Barbara McClintock, whose studies of corn--unconventional by the standards of the time--eventually won her the Nobel Prize.
Pycior, Helena M., et. al., eds. Creative Couples in the Sciences. Rutgers UP, 1996. Twenty-four studies of collaborative work by scientists who were married to each other. Explores the ways in which gender roles, marital dynamics, and social expectations shaped these collaborations.
Sime, Ruth Lewin. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. U. of California Press, 1997. Extensively detailed effort to rescue the co-discoverer of nuclear fission from the historical oblivion to which politics, sexism, and less-than-generous colleagues consigned her. Covers both Meitner's physics and her human-centered personal life.
Smith, Crosbie, and M. Norton Wise. Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge UP, 1989. Definitive biography of one of the most influential figures in nineteenth century physics, covering his contributions to thermodynamics and other fields in considerable technical depth.
Westfall, Richard S. The Life of Isaac Newton. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. A compact distillation of the author's definitive Newton biography Never at Rest. Covers Newton's relationship with colleagues as well as his ideas, and assumes some basic knowledge of the Scientific Revolution.
14 March 2001 | Contact
HSS | Contact
the Web Editor | Return
© 1995-2001 by the History of Science Society, All Rights Reserved
We've Moved! This site is no longer updated.
Please use our new site at http://www.hssonline.org.