Clifford Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and Low Mechanicks offers a nice corrective to the great-man history that often serves as the discipline’s founding myth. While notable names from Pythagoras to Newton receive attention, Conner’s focus is on the unnamed artisans, craftsman and observers of nature who incrementally created a body of knowledge through countless hours of labor. He inverts the notion that scientific advancements are rooted in theory, showcasing quotes from eminent researchers throughout history about the value of the knowledge possessed by the “miners, midwives and mechanicks” cited in the title. (The relative uselessness of the classical curriculum offered by Oxford and other academies throughout much of their aristocratic past is oft-referenced as well.)
The book is most fascinating at the beginning, when it explores the knowledge and learning of traditional cultures, touching upon the astronomy of prehistoric people and the advanced navigational skills of Polynesian sailors. The book falters a bit as it nears modern times; it lacks a comprehensive take on the successes of modern, professional science, and it also falls into the trap of muddling research and politics. Systematic theories of nature, rightfully frowned upon by Conner when they’re formulated by the Greeks, are presented as a compelling alternative during the French Revolution.
Ultimately, the book is refreshing in presenting a more democratic history of science. Great anecdotes and a lively contrarian nature make for a good read.