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Ethnography of Early Modern Science
on 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.