History/Philosophy

The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World

In 1792, the French Academy of Sciences appointed two respected scientists to survey a north-south meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona, for the purpose of determining the size (and shape) of the earth. Why is this important? Because it would establish an international basis for the meter, foundation of the metric system.

Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers: Eight Scientific Rivalries that Changed the World

Many people have difficulty understanding the motivation of scientists for precedence and the recognition it brings. While there are monetary incentives for some of the protagonists in "Acid Tongues", it is more often pride and the acceptance of one's ideas that drove the rivalries of Newton vs. Leibniz, Edison vs. Tesla, Crick and Watson vs. Pauling vs. Franklin and Wilkins.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to negotiate Saturday Los Angeles traffic on our bicycles in order to get to the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles, where the great collection of dinosaur bones from the La Brea Tar pits were exhibited.

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

It goes without saying (amongst males, at least), that one can never have too many tools. Most of us probably have more screwdrivers than any other tool, both because of their utility and their high vapor pressure (like my reading glasses), and so one needs to buy more in order to make sure that one will be available when needed.

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

I first wrote about the controversial thesis of this book back in January of 2000, when my "Pick" was an article about David Hockney by Lawrence Wechler in the New Yorker. With the publication of this very attractive, large-format book, you can look for yourself at the evidence that he argues shows that many of the great master painters secretly used optical devices to help produce their work.

Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball

I've been reading a lot lately about alchemy, and was therefore delighted to find a new book on the history of chemistry (that includes some on alchemy), just published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Trevor Levere takes on the impossible task of chronicling the developments in chemistry from its beginning to the present, in only a little over 200 pages.

The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer

I have to admit that I haven't finished reading this book. With over six hundred, large-format pages and relatively small type, it would probably not have made "Hal's Picks" until next year if I had waited until I had completed it. However, it is entirely possible to dip in for a chapter here and a chapter there.

Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

A year or so ago, I greatly enjoyed reading another book by Lisa Jardine, "Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance", but I couldn't justify it for "Hal's Picks" because it didn't have much scientific content. When I heard about "Ingenious Pursuits", I bought it from a book club and read it right away.

Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem

In about 1637, a French mathematical genius named Pierre de Fermat wrote in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica by Pythagorus, that he could prove that there were no solutions to the simple variation on Pythagorus' Theorem, az + bz = czwhen a, b, and c are integers and z is larger than two.

The Heretic's Daughter

Dava Sobel describes the correspondence to Galileo Galilei from his daughter, Virginia, who was a nun in the Convent of San Matteo, near Florence. Virginia, who took the religious name Maria Celeste, was a kind of apothecary in her convent, and she did her best to provide elixirs and pills to protect Galileo from the plague, along with weekly letters of news and encouragement.