I have just finished reading John Gribbin’s The Scientists, which is a wonderful book on the history of Western science, from the era of Copernicus to the present. The style of the book is biographical, avoiding deep treatment of discoveries in favour of talking about the contributions of individuals. Gribbin enlivens his story with colourful anecdotes about some of the more engaging characters.
The overall effect is to avoid the pitfall of Biblical-style genealogy; there’s only an occasional sense of “A lived N years, and discovered idea X, which begat Y”. I was amused to see Gribbin take repeated swipes at Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), who he clearly regards as clueless.
Really, this book is a history of physics and chemistry; it’s very weak in the natural sciences, only covering evolution in any significant depth. In addition, as the intensity of scientific endeavour increases during the 19th and 20th centuries, the scope of the book necessarily narrows. Gribbin’s eye for the arresting anecdote and skill as a writer more than make up for these weaknesses; I would have been happy to read this book if it were twice as long.
My favourite overview of the history of science is David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science, which covers ancient and medieval science. The two complement each other well; although Lindberg’s work is more a piece of academic historiography than popular history, it’s no less readable than Gribbin’s.