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I ordered this book as it’s the reading for the Royal Society, History of Science Book Group’s August meet-up. I might not be able to make that event (it’s clashing with a late at the Science Museum), but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read a book that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. The book was long-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2010, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Medieval conceptions of science were totally different to our own, and are often very difficult to grasp, given their completely different world view. But Hannam smooths the corners away, helping us understand the important role of magic and astrology in moving knowledge forward, and how medieval Catholicism was actually often a force for improved scientific knowledge rather than against it. He even manages to, half, rehabilitate that dread organisation: the Inquisition! And he does all this while making us aware of the, often unacknowledged, debt that ‘modern’ scientific thinkers from the renaissance onwards owe to their medieval forebears.

My only quibble with this book is that Hannam defends medieval thinkers a little too zealously. I have no doubt that their contribution to the birth of modern science, and the advancements that were made in the Renaissance, has been woefully underestimated. But I also think that Hannam goes a little too far the other way. Whilst he bemoans the use of the term the ‘dark ages’, the period up to 1000 AD (so the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) get a scant 20 pages in his book – for a very good reason – not a lot happened.

In fact, there’s only another 40 pages from that up to the 12th century, which Hannam calls a renaissance in itself. And if you accept that the Renaissance ‘proper’ began in the late 13th century, then most of the book isn’t actually taken up with the medieval period at all. However, the section that is does describe some interesting advancements, especially in architecture,  mathematics, and related to that astrology and clock-making.

But much of the time of medieval scholars seemed to be spent either in darkness, or in trying to access and understand the knowledge of the Islamic world. Hannam seems to be playing a sleight of hand by taking a large period of time which most people accept as the early Renaissance and rebranding it as the late medieval period, so he can hold up the accomplishments of medieval scholars.

That aside, it is a fascinating book, making a dry and difficult subject accessible and enjoyable. And I can forgive Hannam his zeal as he does illuminate the debt modern science owes to those scholars who went before them – whatever period they were working in.


I’m very sympathetic to the argument the authors are trying to make in this book. I’m a big fan of equality. Whilst I have no issues with the CEOs of large multinational companies being paid many times more than their employees, and actually agree that they deserve to be, I think we have gone too far. Maybe they should be paid 10 or 20 times the minimum wage but there is no reason why someone should be, or needs to be, earning hundreds of times more than the minimum wage, and that goes for footballers as well.

And I also think that this inequality in society has driven materialism and consumerism, and that neither of these things are good for us. But, I’m not sure that the authors have managed to prove their central thesis in this book. For they are arguing not only that equality is generally bad for us, and is a component of the social ills we see in unequal societies, but they seem to be saying that it is the only, or certainly main, driving factor, and if we can only solve this problem then everything will be hunky dory. And I’m not sure that’s what their evidence shows.

Yes, they show some great correlation graphs for OECD countries and for American states between inequality and teenage pregnancy, educational indicators, obesity, trust, and health and social problems, just to name a few. However, although they do spend some time trying to show that correlation is cause my reading of this chapter just seemed to hear them saying – but look all this evidence can’t be wrong! – which didn’t really clinch it for me, especially as in some areas, for example health, there’s obviously a lot more going on than just inequality.

And I think that’s what really did it for me about this book: they ignored the other drivers. For example, in many, although not anywhere near all cases, the USA was a real outlier – they were way off the correlation line, normally because they did even worse than would be expected from their inequality level. But there was no discussion of why this might be.

So, the book ended by advocating a political push towards equality, which I agree would be no bad thing, and I think would help with many of the issues our society faces. But I don’t think that by building employee owned companies and putting pay multiple ceilings in place that society would transform overnight. There are reasons other than inequality that drive these problems, and (unless I missed it – and I may have done as it’s taken me a while to finish this book) I don’t think they adjusted for those factors – for example, absolute poverty and cultural attitudes, for a start (although they do, to be fair, discuss and dismiss absolute poverty but I’m not as certain as them, as I think in those countries where absolute poverty is less, there are still the other drivers). I also think that they too readily dismiss the ‘chicken and egg issue’ – that these problems also drive inequality.

In summary, whilst I applaud their aims, and I wish them luck, I think the picture is not as clear as they (and I) wish it was.