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The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself Paperback – February 12, 1985
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Perhaps the greatest book by one of our greatest historians, The Discoverers is a volume of sweeping range and majestic interpretation. To call it a history of science is an understatement; this is the story of how humankind has come to know the world, however incompletely ("the eternal mystery of the world," Einstein once said, "is its comprehensibility"). Daniel J. Boorstin first describes the liberating concept of time--"the first grand discovery"--and continues through the age of exploration and the advent of the natural and social sciences. The approach is idiosyncratic, with Boorstin lingering over particular figures and accomplishments rather than rushing on to the next set of names and dates. It's also primarily Western, although Boorstin does ask (and answer) several interesting questions: Why didn't the Chinese "discover" Europe and America? Why didn't the Arabs circumnavigate the planet? His thesis about discovery ultimately turns on what he calls "illusions of knowledge." If we think we know something, then we face an obstacle to innovation. The great discoverers, Boorstin shows, dispel the illusions and reveal something new about the world.
Although The Discoverers easily stands on its own, it is technically the first entry in a trilogy that also includes The Creators and The Seekers. An outstanding book--one of the best works of history to be found anywhere. --John J. Miller
"Compelling readable. . . . A remarkable narrative of the grand intellectual venture of humankind, rich in fascinating, often dramatic details."—The Wall Street Journal
"A sumptuous, totally engaging panorama. No one who reads it will look at the chronicle of human ingenuity in the same way again." —David McCullough
"Written with great verve . . . [Boorstin's] learning, wit, and lucidity should ensure that he will bring pleasure to a large group of reader." —The New York Review of Books
"History with a human touch." —Newsday
"A grand and exhilirating voyage, a bold attempt to circumnavigate the intellectual globe." —The Philadlephia Inquirer
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It will amaze you how many aspects of modern life remain linked to a very human story of discovery.
In some ways the book is subtly subversive. Much history of discovery turns out to be history of un-learning. Many of the great moments of advancement were those when a person, group, or culture managed to escape the constraints of mysticism, religion, racism, and dogma in order to discern actual truths. The roughly 1,000 years during which Europe collectively rejected knowledge and thought in favor of religious cosmology is treated for what it is: a colossal waste of lives and human potential. In many cases, too, the seemingly great discovery of the moment was totally, factually wrong, its importance lost on the discoverer because the real discovery was not the answer to a question, but the asking of it. The story of human progress could be terribly frustrating, but Boorstin's focus on the positive moments of rising above the muck of ignorance invites the reader to focus on the hope that humanity can continue on this path.
I had read his book "The Creators" (another must-read focused on art) and I think the same element is present. In "The Discoverers", Boorstin takes us by the hand and guides us through the history of Man's search for knowledge. And it is a romp. The cast of characters is as varied as humanity itself, from crazy madmen to admirable heroes of knowledge. Among the ones I remember best: Galileo was a great guy, I would have loved to meet him; Newton not, he was not a nice guy (and I couldn't understand any of his thoughts anyway); Paracelsus was a total whacko; Columbus was admirable in his obstination; Linnaeus was great too; but the guy who discovered metabolism was the craziest of them all. Just imagine a guy weighing his body before and after meals, and then weighing... ugh, his excrements to measure the difference. Thank God somebody did it, but it sounds awful.
Read this book and you will learn a lot more than in three years of school.