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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.
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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 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 March 25, 2016
Creative analysis of the history of scientific inquiry. Occasionally repetitive, but the unique perspective and insights make it worth reading.
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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 August 28, 2017
A charming read.
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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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on May 15, 2015
a continuation of the histories she writes so very well.
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on November 12, 2015
Well written history and keeps the attention of the reader.
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on May 7, 2016
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