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A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks [Paperback]

Clifford D. Conner
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 8, 2005 1560257482 978-1560257486
We all know the history of science that we learned from grade school textbooks: How Galileo used his telescope to show that the earth was not the center of the universe; how Newton divined gravity from the falling apple; how Einstein unlocked the mysteries of time and space with a simple equation. This history is made up of long periods of ignorance and confusion, punctuated once an age by a brilliant thinker who puts it all together. These few tower over the ordinary mass of people, and in the traditional account, it is to them that we owe science in its entirety. This belief is wrong. A People's History of Science shows how ordinary people participate in creating science and have done so throughout history. It documents how the development of science has affected ordinary people, and how ordinary people perceived that development. It would be wrong to claim that the formulation of quantum theory or the structure of DNA can be credited directly to artisans or peasants, but if modern science is likened to a skyscraper, then those twentieth-century triumphs are the sophisticated filigrees at its pinnacle that are supported by the massive foundation created by the rest of us.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this persuasive history, Conner aggressively pursues evidence of how, since the earliest civilizations, elite scientists have suppressed and excluded lower class innovators while learning from and using their discoveries, often without giving them credit. As Conner notes, many of the "Great Man" myths about people like Galileo and Columbus, once believed to have made their contributions to science out of their own genius, have been debunked, but even those persist in the popular imagination, and others have never been addressed. The pages are dense with information and quotes from both primary sources and modern revisionist historians, and Conner tries to cover too much in too little space, but he writes clearly and skillfully shows connections as he ranges across time periods and disciplines from medicine to art to astronomy. However, despite promising to highlight women's important role in the sciences, they are mostly absent, and the brief chapter on modern times mostly concerns itself with corruption in the pharmaceuticals and atomic weaponry industries. Nonetheless, this book is a valuable synthesis of previously spotty attempts to show science's reliance on the anonymous multitudes for many important advances.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Explicitly emulating Howard Zinn's enduringly popular A People's History of the United States (1979), Conner applies an anti-elitist point of view in his survey of science from prehistory to the present. Conner is not as occupied with scientific ideas and discoveries as he is with the sociology and historiography of science. He is keen to oppose the inculcation of admiration for the Great Men of Science--words he capitalizes in disparagement--but since science historians of socialist bent have preceded him in this iconoclastic project, Conner acknowledges that his work is something of a synthesis. That will be valuable for bringing specialist literature to general readers, who will imbibe Conner's contention that manual workers, tradesmen, and craftsmen, through a trial-and-error process, created the empirical basis for the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. In Conner's collectivist framework, names associated with the experimental method, such as Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, are like copyright pirates; and the notion of the individual genius-scientist is illusory. With a stout left-wing attitude, Conner's tome will instigate debate. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Paperback: 568 pages
  • Publisher: Nation Books (November 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560257482
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560257486
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.6 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #648,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in New Jersey, grew up in Tennessee, and went to college at Georgia Tech. I worked for Lockheed Aircraft, which in 1966 sent me to England for a year as a design engineer on the C-5A cargo plane. My time in England coincided with the escalation of the Vietnam War. When I returned from England to Georgia, I resigned from Lockheed in a public act of protest against its role as a war profiteer. As a result, I became unemployable as the FBI dogged my trail, warning prospective employers against hiring me. (This was confirmed years later when I got my FBI files via a Freedom Of Information Act request.) I got married while still in college and by 1968 had three children, all daughters. The marriage ended in 1970, whereupon I moved to Manhattan and have been a New Yorker ever since. In 1980 I met my soulmate, Marush; we have lived "happily ever after." Meanwhile, the three daughters have produced a total of six grandchildren. Job stability has not been my strong suit, but I did eventually settle down to choose a career path. In 1985 I decided I wanted to be a historian, so I got the requisite Ph.D. degree and went on to teach history and write books on historical subjects.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging Interpretation Ruffles Feathers November 28, 2006
It seems that Cliff Conner's challenging interpretation has ruffled some feathers. The fact that he dares to think that there has been gender and racial and class bias impacting on the history of science immediately damns him in the eyes of some reviewers on this site.

One reviewer has been so upset that he felt compelled to reach for the most terrible label ever: "post-modernist." It seems to me that there is nothing of the sort in Cliff Conner's conceptions or vocabulary. He may be a small "d" democrat, even a good old-fashioned Marxist, but not one of those terrrible, terrible post-modernists (although they, too, happen to talk about the impact of bias on science).

To speak of such things is apparently reason for some folks to uncork their bottle of insults, and splash about unpleasant accusations. That's too bad, since it can easily be documented that social bias and elitism have had an impact among scientists as well as among intellectual historians. It's not such a controversial point.

Rather than getting bent out of shape over Conner's statement of the obvious, the reader should relax and follow the flow of this clearly written book. What Conner shows is rooted in the anthropologically sound understanding that science is a collective process of comprehending and changing the world around us. This is hardly to deny the fact that there have been outstanding and "craftsman-like" individuals who have sythesized the work of others to develop new insights and make exciting breakthroughs. (For every such genius, of course, there are a number of intellectual thieves -- some of whom fare badly in Conner's book -- but that it is another matter.
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34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
I am not sure whether the author writes history or he is "cherry-picking" to justify his own ideology. The book is definitely BIASED and contains many things that inaccurate or incorrect.

I will focus basically on Chapter 3, entitled "What Greek Miracle?".

Regarding mathematics, of course the Greeks came into contact, were influenced, etc, by the Egyptians, Babylonians, etc, (as many ancient Greeks reported), but that's not the point. The point, which Conner deliberately or by ignorance is missing, is that the Greeks (first) saw the need to introduce the notion of PROOF (and rigor in general) in mathematics, perhaps due to the socio-political (and religious) dynamics of their time, and that's what we mean when we say that they founded contemporary mathematics. The Pythagorean Theorem was well known to the Babylonians, true, but the proof of it was NOT. The need to provide a rigorous argument for such property of a right-angle triangle begins with the Greeks, and not with the Babylonians, unless Conner has any evidence to the contrary which he does NOT.

The author also tends to identify Plato's insistence on geometry with Greek mathematics. Geometry was not ALL Greek mathematics. Even in Euclid's "Elements" we have several Chapters on Number Theory, but Conner conveniently doesn't mention that. Conner also downplays the practical mathematics that Archimedes engaged into, and completely omits the immense contributions of Diophantus in algebra and arithmetic, just so give weight to his silly argument that "geometry was for the elite, arithmetic was for the poor, therefore the Greeks and the rest of the scientist until today, who relied on Greeks, had one thing in mind: to distort history, and keep poor and non-whites down".
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Close but no cigar May 8, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Being of a generally socialist bent, I am very sympathetic to the project of "people's histories", ever since it was conceived by A.L. Morton's excellent A people's history of England, but that does not mean that we should be uncritical towards what is actually written. Not just Howard Zinn's prototype book (People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present) in the modern series should be evaluated with care, but this goes as well for other books in this series, including this one, the "People's History of Science" by Clifford Conner.

Conner's thesis is that although the history of science has often been portrayed in the usual "Great Men" style as the work of a privileged few brilliant men (and yes, almost only men) seeing further than anyone elses and inventing wondrous new sciences and technologies, in reality most of established academia during the ages was of no value whatever, and real scientific progress resulted through the experiments and practice of artisans, painters, miners, etc., not through the academic thinking of the learned.
Tracing a chronology of technological development, Conner gives a convincing if not entirely open-and-shut case for this thesis, in particular when it comes to demonstrating the great advances in science made by the lowly and unacademic during the ancient periods as well as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Equally, Conner gives women and non-Europeans their due, quite correctly emphasizing the large advances in technology made by the Chinese, the Native American societies, the Arabs, and so on, often ages before any European ever conceived of the thought.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars For the stupid "people"?
This author knows little science and less history. I'm not even sure Conner himself knows what he means when he uses the word "people."

Are rich people people? Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jed Serrano
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book for Read
Purchase this book for the course. It is actually very interesting and good book to read.
Conner is surely a very good writer and all information very educational and many of... Read more
Published 8 months ago by KangC
2.0 out of 5 stars Knocking down straw men
Using a particular technology isn't science. Connor has a very simplistic idea of how the history of science is viewed, and got too excited about a completely different topic,... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Sara E. Anderson
5.0 out of 5 stars The Working Class and Science
Clifford Conner shows us the history of science through observing the actions and learned practices of toilers throughout history. Read more
Published on August 20, 2011 by Z.A. Mrefu
4.0 out of 5 stars keep the baby--throw out the bath water
There is much good in this book that should not be ignored just because some reviewers correctly raise questions about the author's wide ranging ideas on subordinate topics. Read more
Published on March 28, 2011 by William C. Greene
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good read, despite flaws.
This book systematically exposes the pseudo-history of science that we are all taught. From the beginnings of science in hunter-gatherer society, through the beginning of the... Read more
Published on March 16, 2011 by J Harrington
4.0 out of 5 stars Thick as a Brick, But Full of Fascination
This starts out as a very intimidating book, mainly because of it's width. Once you enter it, though, it's very readable. Read more
Published on February 19, 2011 by C. M. Levin
1.0 out of 5 stars Overcompensation
Howard Zinn's People's History of the U.S. has reached new levels of popularity in recent years, and left wing capitalists everyone seem to want to cash in. Read more
Published on February 10, 2011 by Cornerstone
4.0 out of 5 stars Fair enough
I would want to give a 5-star rating to this book, but considering the unbearably boring and report-like last chapter of this book, I give a 4-star instead. Read more
Published on December 27, 2010 by Dawn King
1.0 out of 5 stars Mixed bag
His basic point has been expressed before, and expressed much better. Nobody has argued since Carlyle in the Great Man theory of history. Read more
Published on December 25, 2010
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