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Everyone knows that the Scientific Revolution involved some great minds, like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton, and that it happened in the seventeenth century, and that one of its centers was London. But it was not the case that before the revolution people were unscientific and after it they were scientific. What was the infrastructure in place that allowed for the blossoming of scientific thinking that was to come, and has yet to abate? Deborah E. Harkness, a professor of history, has given an account of something we haven't thought much about: Elizabethan science. In _The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution_ (Yale University Press), Harkness has given an extensive history of how sixteenth century London took up scientific enquiry. She admits that other than Francis Bacon there will be few well known "scientists" here. To speak strictly, there wasn't anyone called a scientist until the word was invented in the nineteenth century. And the Elizabethans profiled here didn't come up with many scientific breakthroughs. On the other hand, they were energetic and curious Londoners, "naturalists, medical practitioners, mathematicians, teachers, inventors, and alchemists", who wanted to study the world and benefit people thereby, and Harkness has told a story that deserves telling.

The first case study Harkness undertakes is that of the naturalists centered in Lime Street, a cosmopolitan central London neighborhood, "the English outpost of a Europe-wide network of students of nature." The naturalists here corresponded with each other in a way that (at least sometimes) shows the ideal balance of cooperation and competitiveness that scientists ought to have, and they swapped specimens and did fieldwork. Harkness considers the medical arena chiefly through the conflicts of the different schools and specialists of the time. "London had a practitioner to suit every patient's purse and preferences", she writes, and perhaps because of that, medical professionals were very protective of their particular schools. There was a medical bustle of quacks, midwives, and other healers which spread on the streets and via word of mouth. Basic to science is mathematics; London was embracing mathematics at the time. A famous version of Euclid from 1570, with an introduction by the renowned occultist John Dee, helped emphasized that numbers were not wicked but profitable for citizens and the state. Science was good for business and for the state, and no one knew this better than William Cecil who was the favorite minister of Queen Elizabeth, both of whom sought projects with tangible outcomes, directing funds for the sixteenth century version of "big science" to such endeavors as mining or the refinement of ores. Harkness spends a chapter on the unfortunate merchant Clement Draper, who was in debtors' prison for thirteen years, but continued to experiment and fill notebooks with his observations and those from his fellow inmates, some of whom were as interested in such matters as he.

Harkness winds up this tour of sixteenth century London science with a description of the efforts of lawyer Hugh Plat and contrasting them with those of the far more famous Francis Bacon. One of Harkness's themes is how scientific efforts came from all levels of society, and Plat viewed the collective scientific enterprise in just this way. The son of a brewer, he consulted winemakers, candle-makers, midwives, gardeners, salt-makers, and more on such subjects as food preservation, firefighting, desalinization of water, and so on. Bacon called for a gentleman's ideal of orderly and academic investigation of nature by scholars, but Plat emphasized how commoners could contribute, and even when he interviewed experts like John Dee, he was much more interested in their practical and experimentally derived wisdom than in their theories. Harkness is clearly on Plat's side, and her summary chapter on his work in many fields nicely caps a fascinating and detailed overview of the scientific foundation London made for the upcoming revolution.
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VINE VOICEon March 1, 2008
As an anthropologist, I was reading this book with delight, and thinking it was just like an ethnography--to find that at the end she describes it as "an ethnography of early modern science," and cites such ethnographic luminaries as George Marcus and Bruno Latour. Indeed, this is a look at the actual culture of scientific and technical discovery in London in Elizabeth I's time. It is a real eye-opener. London at the time was swarming with technologists, herbalists, medical investigators, and every sort of inventor--not to speak of quacks, con artists and mountebanks pretending to be all of the above. The search for knowledge was downright frantic. Those of us who knew only a little about the history of early modern science knew only a tiny thin thread of this--a bit of Bacon (she cuts him down to size!) and a few others.
It is striking to compare London with China at approximately the same time; Benjamin Elman, William Rowe, and others have shown a similar and equally little-known ferment there, but even their best efforts don't seem to show as much sheer originality, inventiveness, and wild-eyed experimentation in Chinese cities as London had. China never quite made the breakthrough to modern science until the 20th century. London--and, Ogilvie reminds us, the whole "republic of letters" all over Europe--had a culture of scientific advance rooted in trades, crafts, mining, brewing, fish trapping, bird snaring, everything. People were trying every new scheme to produce more.
Alchemy and astrology receive due respect here. In those days, everyone knew that metallurgy could make amazing transformations; no one knew that gold, silver, etc. were primary elements that simply could not be easily transformed into each other. (People were just beginning to realize that "earth, air, fire, water" wasn't a fully adequate list of elements.) Similarly, everyone knew the sun influenced every living thing, and the moon ruled the tides; logic and common sense brought everyone to the inescapable conclusion that the other heavenly bodies must be influencing us too. The failure of alchemy and astrology was not the failure of "pseudoscience" but the triumph of reality over logic and reason--a triumph we see today, every day, as the most reasonable economic and political predictions go down in flames, ruined by human cussedness. It would be decades before Boyle could be a successfully "skeptical chemist" building on experimental proof of alchemy's failure.
Early modern science was a wonderful, exciting world. I came to it after a lifetime of ethnographic research on traditional knowledge of plants and animals--in China, indigenous North America, and elsewhere. How wonderful to see an ethnography of Elizabethan London's science.
For the future, one recommendation to ethnographers of early science: Look at Charles Frake's LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL DESCRIPTION as well as Latour, Marcus, et al. Frake still does the best job of explaining how to study nonwestern and traditional scientific/technical knowledge.
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on September 12, 2012
I'm giving this a 3.51 and rounding it up to a 4 :-)

I'll give the book a 3 for "readability/accessibility" and a 4+ for scholarship.

I read this book because it is a scholarly/nonfiction work by Deborah Harkness, whose novels "Discovery of Witches" and "Shadow of Night" I have enjoyed thoroughly. Indeed, its obvious that so much of the "smartness" and intelligence of her novels comes from hours and hours and hours of research in some of the world's oldest and most prestigious libraries and collections.

The Bibliography of the book is loaded with citations of hundreds of 17th century manuscripts and other primary sources and period books.

Interestingly, this book had some of the same characteristics of her novels - a GREAT beginning and a WONDERFUL ending sandwich a so-so middle.

The book was a look at science in Elizabethan London which also satisfies my own professional and historical interests in science, invention, and chemistry, although not from anacademic perspective.

As with most things, it's amazing how little things change over time and how we never seem to learn important lessons - whether you are for or against government influence/sponsoring of emerging or "pet" industries/technologies - Solyndra and the military-industrial complex being recent and timeless examples - you will be astounded to learn how politics, power, and royalty - even as high as Queen Elizabeth I - influenced what scientific and industrial projects received financing in the 1600s. And if you think today's politicians are greedy/corrupt, they seem like saints against the men in high places who profited from these projects.

The discussion of the Republic of Letters and a thriving community of people who happily shared their discoveries, interests, questions, and collections was enthralling.

A middle chapter about mathematics education, though, was representative of the problem with the accessibility of this book: over and over again she stated how knowing math better would give an advantage to businessmen an families yet it wasn;t until late in the chapter that she gave a single actual example and a rather boring one at that.

The most interesting - and most depressing chapter - was the final one in which the collaborative, unselfish (in terms of sharing results and sharing credit), and progressive idea of scientific inquiry manifested in the life of Hugh Plat was contrasted with the life of Francis Bacon, who gets the lion's share of credit for ushering in the scientific and industrial revolutions, mostly by reserving the life of scientific inquiry to the privileged and without giving credit where it was due.

Look at how long the Wiki entry is for Hugh Plat and then look at Bacon's...Bacon's is several times longer but Plat's life and contributions were so much more interesting and's Bacon we here about but it's Plat our youngest citizens should be learning about...I see this difference all the time in my life as a scientist...I'm dedicated to be more of a Plat than a Bacon.

This book serves as a nice prequel to Holly Tucker's "Blood Work"...Holly is also an academic but her book is so much more readable and entertaining than this one, without skimping on the scholarship at all.

I do remain a huge fan of Deborah Harkness as a scholar and a writer.
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A very interesting read on the interpretation of the role of science in society, with Excellent research, and experience. This book contains expert knowledge on the scientific revolution, illuminating different topics on the contribution to the history of science and how important it is to the growing world. Fascinating as it draws the reader right in to discovery, variety and beauty. Very Enjoyable, a lovely gift for a friend who enjoys anything science, and Highly Recommended!
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on August 24, 2012
I am not a scientist, I decided to read this after reading the first two of her All Souls Trilogy. I knew it was a scholarly book and was intrigued by the descriptions of 16th Century London in the second book. I was expecting something well researched and written and possibly quite dry. I was right on the writing and research, but it is not at all dry! It is engaging and simply fascinating to read about the sciences done at most levels of London's population. The authors extraordinary gift for description and for making the reader care about her subjects is here. I am delighted I took the plunge and read this--my husband who is a scientist is waiting for me to finish so he can enjoy it as well!
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on June 16, 2013
This is not a light tome, it is a factual account intended for a higher education audience. Having said that, somehow Ms. Harkness' style comes through and she is always an enjoyable author. Rather than a "fun" read, this is useful for those of us fascinated with Elizabethan London, particularly if we also plan to write about the subject.
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on October 27, 2013
If the history of science is one of your hobbies, this book will be a great addition to your library. We've all heard about Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, but this book is about so many people in Elizabethan London who contibuted to the Scientific Revolution, but that I'd not heard of.
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on March 26, 2013
Fascinating and detailed study of the emergence of science, the scientific method as exemplified by the doctors, astrologers, mathematicians and craftsmen of Elizabethan England. Harkness zeroes in on specific professions and educates a lay reader about the complexities of day-to-day life of colorful personalities tiny neighborhoods and hearty stew of religious conflict and political chicanery. Brilliant period recreation and indepth analysis of the then "state of the art" of medicine, astronomy, nautical instruments and time keeping devices. A wealth of information in readable prose that brings the brilliance of the varied minds of the Elizabethan era.
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on July 24, 2015
I love to read non fiction that encompasses the history of science. This was a treasure trove of a specific time and place in the history of scientific methods and achievements. Not great discoveries but the day to day discoveries that made the big ones possible. I enjoyed the book.
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on January 20, 2013
If you love London and British history this book is for you!! Superbly written. A fantastic book!! A trip back in time.
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