Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: The Book Nobody Read


The first clue that this book would be better than expected is the opening scene. The Book Nobody Read is a story about an academic's work compiling a census of all first and second editions of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, the book that proposed that it's the earth that moves around the sun despite appearances and scriptures to the contrary. Unexpectedly, it opens in trial like a Law and Order episode in which Gingerich must testify about whether a copy of De Revolutionibus was stolen or not. The epilogue ends the book with a visit from the FBI, also about stolen books. Gingerich is a professor of the history of science, and here he tells the story of compiling his census from the early 70s to the turn of the century. His several visits behind the Iron Curtain add a bit of Cold War history to the 16th-century history of the census and its annotations. Who knew that marginal notes could be so illuminating? From time to time the book veers into the realm of too much detail for someone outside of the field, but on the whole Gingerish expertly weaves the narrative of history with the narrative of the academic's search for truth. More scientists should write books like this, because behind every bit of science or history there is a story of how that science or history was found out. This book is exhibit A in my contention that the best way to teach science is through story. Recommended.

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