The Short Story of Science, by Tom Jackson, is the latest in the growing genre of what I call ‘flash reference.’ As flash fiction tells a rich narrative in a tiny space, so Jackson provides a remarkable amount of depth in entries typically under 140 words. The Short Story of Science is part of a series that includes The Short Story of art, modern art, architecture, film, photography, and the novel.
It is quite a feat to cover science’s history and its landmark experiments, theories, and methodology in 224 pages. With clear, accessible writing, the book meets the needs of scientifically-curious but time-pressed general readers who want more than they can find in an encyclopedia or annotated dictionary. Because this is a print volume, its contents are necessarily historical and evergreen.
Jackson divides the book into four sections, each organized in chronological order. Each topic receives either one or two pages, including an illustration, cross-references, a pull-out box, and the main text. The Histories and Experiments sections provide a solid history of science; the Theories and Methods & Equipment sections are particularly dazzling once they hit the 21st century.
And it’s not ‘just the facts.’ The book benefits from Jackson’s attention to the social context of the science he addresses. He is committed to diversity, particularly bringing women and non-Western scientists out of the shadows. In the book’s introduction, he writes, “…it is hoped that readers of this book will note in particular that the means to measure the vastness of the Universe was the work of a woman; that a woman revealed the process of nuclear fission within atomic bombs; that the existence of dark matter, one of the biggest science mysteries, was proven by a woman; and that the Greenhouse Effect was first shown by a woman.”
Jackson describes experiments in which landmark scientific principles were discovered or proven, or prevailing belief was disproven. In keeping with his diversity theme, he provides a stunning account of how Rosalind Franklin discovered the helical structure of DNA using x-ray crystallography. Her photograph revealing this structure was purportedly smuggled to Watson and Crick, who used it to inform their DNA model.
Jackson brings social and political context to bear throughout the book; a 50-75-word biography of a scientist accompanies each experiment. The biographies include information on financing—whether scientists struggled for funding or were born into it—as well as conflict with other scientists, the church, or the omnipresent glass ceiling.
Delving into scientists’ backgrounds humanizes their work. We learn who died in an ancient war, was guillotined, killed by thieves, or died of radiation poisoning.
By including biographical circumstances, Jackson shows how material advantage has favored scientists throughout history. “Having grown up in precarious financial circumstances, Galileo cultivated noblemen to secure an income from his science and technology,” he writes. In contrast, Jackson hints that Robert Boyle might not have developed his gas laws without the top-notch equipment he was privileged to afford.
The opportunity cost of this context is a lack of detail in describing some of the experiments. Those who don’t enjoy math might consider this an advantage. For example, “Boyle principally used a pump to suck the air from jars and vessels, showing that a lack of air silenced the sound of a bell, snuffed out flames, and made plants and animals die.”
Hand-waving aside, I learned enough about “how we know” to gain insight into fields I had previously found inscrutable, such as the physics of the Universe. I now know that one can only detect dark matter by its gravitational effects and a massive amount of mathematics. Better yet, Jackson approaches many of the densest topics with a wry sense of humor. In the section on dark matter, he writes that by the 1930s, “Swiss American Fritz Zwicky… suggested there might be some invisible matter in the galaxy… The problem was then ignored until the 1970s…”
Jackson has selected a broad and representative array of scientific fields to cover, and his summaries are accurate and up to date for the most part.
Regrettably, there are some exceptions. In his history of genetic modification, he perpetuates a misconception that all modern GMOs contain genes from other species. This outdated idea still holds back public acceptance of a technology with great potential for good.
He also displays outdated information in the Methods & Equipment section when describing CRISPR, mentioning only the enzyme Cas9. CRISPR technology had progressed well beyond Cas9 to include enzymes such as Cas12 by the book’s publication; Jackson could have made this point within the allotted space.
Equally surprising, in the page on stem cells, he omits mention of the non-Western scientists who made a significant advance in stem cell technology. “Doctors are learning how to reset stem cells back into the pluripotent form, which can differentiate into any cell type,” Jackson writes. Yet back in 2007, Naturepublished an article on how scientists in Japan had reprogrammed adult skin cells to become stem cells that could differentiate into any kind of tissue. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for this discovery.
Aside from such limitations, Jackson’s book is an excellent addition to the library of anyone interested in science. It is easy to criticize what Jackson left out; more striking is what he covered within the allotted space.
The Short Story of Science is somewhat comparable to Sciencia, a 2011 anthology edited by John Martineau. The difference is that Sciencia focuses on scientific principles and mathematical formulas; The Short Story of Science puts science into a historical and social context. Both perspectives are valuable.
Jackson is a British writer who has published over 100 books, including reference books for adults and children. He holds a degree in zoology from Bristol University and has worked in zoos and conservation. His writing specialties are natural history, technology, and ‘all things scientific.’
The Short Story of Science: A Pocket Guide to Key Histories, Experiments, Theories, Methods & Equipment, by Tom Jackson. Laurence King Publishing, Ltd, 224 pages, $19.99. This book will be available on April 5, 2022.
Disclosure: The reviewer received a copy of this book from the publisher.