From Galileo's analysis of motion to the theories of evolution and relativity, Charles Gillispie takes us on a masterly tour of the world of scientific ideas. The history of modern science is portrayed here as the development of objectivity through the study of nature.
In the mid-1950s, a young professor at Princeton named Charles Gillispie began teaching Humanities 304, one of the first undergraduate courses offered anywhere in the world on the history of science. From start to finish--Galileo to Einstein--Gillispie introduced the students to the key ideas and individuals in science. The Edge of Objectivity arose out of this course.
It must have been a lively class. The Edge of Objectivity is pointed, opinionated, and selective. Even at six hundred pages, the book is, as the title suggests, an essay. Gillispie is unafraid to rate Mendel higher than Darwin, Maxwell above Faraday. Full of wry turns of phrase, the book effectively captures people and places. And throughout the book, Gillispie pushes an argument. He views science as the progressive development of more objective, detached, mathematical ways of viewing the world, and he orchestrates his characters and ideas around this theme.
In the forty-five years since the publication of The Edge of Objectivity, historians of science have established a full-fledged discipline. They have focused increasingly on the social context of science rather than its internal dynamics, and they have frequently viewed science more as a threatening instance of power than as an accumulation of knowledge. Nevertheless, Gillispie's book remains a sophisticated, fast-moving, idiosyncratic account of the development of scientific ideas over four hundred years, by one of the founding intellects in the history of science.
"Gillispie has written a bold, penetrating, and very personal book. . . . Deft evocation of personality, bright flashes of biographical detail, and enough connected narrative to show the direction and complexity of scientific advance, are all subordinated to the task of examining the crucial attitudes and ideas, the signal commitments of thought, which have shaped modern science and troubled the mind of modern man. . . . All told, this is an exciting book, based on wide and often deep scholarship, a pleasure to read and to meditate upon. It is sure to be widely read, often quoted, and interminably discussed."--Henry Guerlac, The New York Times
"An excellent book, stimulating for someone just beginning to take an interest in the history of scientific thought, and sufficiently scholarly in its material and conclusions to be worth reading by the specialist, too."--R. Harr, Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry
"This is a wonderful book. . . . Not attempting a survey, [Gillispie chooses] certain aspects to write about with originality and depth [and provides] a light of understanding which diffuses over a whole epoch. . . . We have thus a set of panels starting with Galileo, Kepler, and seventeenth-century cosmology, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment culminating in Lavoisier, the life sciences leading up to Lamarck and Darwin, and nineteenth-century energetics and field physics. . . ."--Giorgio de Santillana, American Scientist
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Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Charles Coulston Gillispie: