Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: The Day the Universe Changed



Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Thomas S. Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In it, a very academic tone is used to describe how “controversy points” in the history of scientific development had to be worked through before new theories and new ideas could be explored, considered and ultimately accepted. As this book interested me, I wanted to see if I could find a title that would likewise address many of the same questions, possibly look at some other angles and, OK, I’ll admit it, do it in a way that didn’t make me want to run for a dictionary or Wikipedia every other paragraph. I do not consider readability to be a sin; in fact I consider it to be a very worthwhile goal.

As I was looking, I thought about James Burke, the English historian and television producer of the “Connections” series of television programs produced for BBC in the late 70’s. I had also heard that he had a series and book published called “The Day the Universe Changed”. Could this book be what I was looking for, i.e. a title with a broader coverage of epistemological ideas and, perhaps, also entertaining?

First, for those not familiar with James Burke, he is a pioneer in the idea of the interconnectedness of thought and development of culture, science and society. Developments and discoveries do not happen in a vacuum, and it’s rare that one person alone completely presents a new idea that changes everything. Much of the work and the phenomena of the world is interconnected, and it’s through those interconnections that future development is done and future progress is made.  Burke shows through ten chapters that the world that we know today has changed many times through the centuries and millennia that have passed before us. Actually, the world itself hasn’t really changed, but our models and institutions for communicating about and dealing with that world have been radically altered many times throughout history.

There are several areas that are discussed in the book. The Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the universe and the nature of the authority of the Roman Catholic church helping to make that universal view so prevalent. The development of measurement and Euclidean geometry, and the development of Algebra in the Middle east and how it came to the fore in Europe through the libraries of Cordova in Spain. The development of large mercantile institutions and families, such as the Medici in Italy and other areas, that required more streamlined methods of accounting. The development of optics that let observers make more refined measurements of the “celestial bodies” and better explain their behavior (leading to an understanding of a heliocentric solar system). The understanding of geology and fossil records that showed a greater age of the earth than previously considered, and a greater variety of life than was previously considered. How medicine had developed from focusing on the temperament of a patient to the understanding of how microorganisms played into both contagion and the development of immunity. How electricity helped to isolate elements, and how this led to a better understanding of the nature of matter and how it is composed, along with the understanding of positively and negatively charged matter. The development of Darwin’s theory of evolution is also discussed, and how that theory influenced numerous aspects of society. How the relative position of anything affects is ability to be measured in any meaningful way. Science and technology influence each other over and over, with a change in one often causing major disruption, time and again, to the established order of things, and that disruption leading people to consider new avenues of thinking to address the challenges raised.

Burke covers a large period of time in this book, a few thousand years. Many of the areas that are covered are compartmentalized so that the developments are seen through the context of their times, societies, and political & religious forces that dominated those periods. Some changes appear to happen relatively quickly, while others happen much more slowly, and often for reasons other than scientific inquiry or lack of it (politics and religion frequently take center stage, both at times acting as the champion and the hinderer of scientific discovery). Both religion and politics take a bit of a drubbing in this book.  While some may point to this as saying that Burke has an anti-religious bias, I would disagree. Burke is placing the struggles of political and religious life into the context of the ages in which changes were taking place, and in many cases, the resistance was not because of scientific discovery, but what the news of that discovery might have on the political landscape (i.e. who holds what power at what time). While there is a little editorializing regarding religion and science and which views prevail at which time, Burke is fair handed and lets the facts of the discoveries tell the story.

Bottom Line:

One of the things I strive to do with these reviews is to explain or highlight the reasons why they would be valuable to testers. What Burke shows in The Day the Universe Changed is that many discoveries and changes in the way issues are found and resolved occur by accident; two things that were studied separately, when combined, bring a greater understanding of both areas and a realization that they are actually related to each other (case in point, electricity and magnetism). Thus, the title of the book is a bit of a misnomer; there isn’t one day in which the universe was altered, and more to the point, the Universe wasn't altered at all. We as people discovered a new way to look at our world and to test against it (see, there’s that magic word again :) ).

What makes this book interesting is that we see the evolution of thought, and for those who are interested in Epistemology, “The Day the Universe Changed” is an engaging, interesting, and just plain fun way to consider the topic. Whereas Kuhn made a very academic exposition of how “Paradigm Shifts” took place, Burke makes the information, the times and the temperament of the times understandable to the common reader. A thorough understanding of the eras or the science involved is not necessary. Both books are aimed at a different set of readers, but both convey the same message; it’s our understanding or our world, or the lack thereof, which either spurs or hinders advancement in thought and implementation of technologies that aid us. The world is still much the same. We haven’t invented phenomena. Instead, we have just learned how to harness the phenomena that surround us in new and inventive ways, and have built upon the knowledge and experimentation of those that have preceded us. For those that would like to see where we have been, what we have discovered along the way, and to get excited about where we might go from here, The Day the Universe Changed should whet your appetite nicely, and then give the reader motivation to look for additional avenues to explore.
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