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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2002

Book Reviews

The Scientific Revolution: An Encyclopedia

Ann Jensen
University of California, Berkeley

The Scientific Revolution: An Encyclopedia / William E. Burns. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, c2001. 387 pp. $75.00 ISBN 0-87436-875-8

This book covers the developments in knowledge of the natural world that took place during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. The historical events chosen as the beginning and ending anchors for the chronology of this work reveal much about its focus. 1503 is the date of the establishment of a repository of navigational and cartographic knowledge by King Ferdinand II of Spain. 1727 marks the death of Isaac Newton, the first president of the Royal Society of London. Both are important events in the development, codification, recording and dissemination of scientific knowledge. Entries are included for individuals, movements, and specific discoveries in science, and for a variety of social, religious and cultural topics, including skepticism and magic, the papacy and politics, to literature and illustration.

The author defines the scientific revolution, in part, as that time when knowledge of the physical and natural world developed from simple discrete observations by isolated individuals into subjects for analysis, explanation, controversy, and ultimately integration and interaction with all other aspects of society. The selections of scientists and scientific phenomenon are well chosen from many disciplines. These include topics at the discipline level -- geology, chemistry, mathematics, mining, etc -- and items at a more specific level, such as slide rules, the trial of Galileo, thermometers, and blood transfusions. Adding depth to the scientific entries, are sections that describe trends in Islamic, East Asian, Indian, and Medieval science, the impact of various religious traditions, and early institutions of science discovery and discourse: : Oxford and Cambridge Universities, salons and learned societies in several European countries, libraries, museums, and collections.

It is this presentation of connection and context that contributes to the uniqueness of this volume, and that provide an understanding of not only scientific content, but its changing cultural role. Seemingly disparate entries are connected through clear writing, careful attention to context, excellent cross referencing, and a minimum of redundancy from one entry to another. The subtitle "An Encyclopedia," is misleading. This volume is presented as an encyclopedia, but it is also highly readable as a whole, either from start to finish, or from one entry to the next via its well chosen cross references. It should not be relegated to a non-circulating reference section as its title might imply.

This small volume is not comprehensive or complete as a study for all scientific activity during these centuries. But each of its entries is satisfyingly thorough and consistently presented within a multi-faceted historical context. A 10-page chronology; an extensive 12-page bibliography that includes web sites; and a very detailed index, all add to the usefulness of this volume. The foreword by Paula Findlen, director of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Stanford University, is itself a timely essay on the integration of information that is contained within the pages.

This title will entice readers from high school through professional, generalists, scientists and historians, into better understanding and appreciation of the historical complexities inherent in the scientific revolution.

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