Sub-titled “The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos”, Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Upright Thinkers” traces the development of science from the first tools to quantum physics. Or as the author puts it, “from a species living off whatever nuts and berries and roots we could harvest with our hands, to one that flies airplanes.”
It’s an interesting, well-written and deeply researched book. A theme throughout it is that humans have consistently thought out-of-the-box: “Our creativity is constrained by conventional thinking that arises from beliefs we can’t shake, or never even think of questioning.” This red line holds the story together and gives a very inspirational message.
The book is divided into three chronological parts.
Part I: The Upright Thinkers
We start a few million years ago when humans began to stand upright and become thinkers, with a drive to decipher nature. We learn how Homo habilis started using stone tools, how Homo erectus made fire, and that amazingly Homo sapiens was once, probably due to climate change, an endangered species.
He describes the rise of human culture, the Neolithic revolution from solitary wanderers to villagers, the rise of agriculture, the beginnings of language and writing, the first mathematics, the growth of human spirituality, the development of the city, and “the introduction of professions that dealt with the pursuit of ideas rather than the procurement of food.”
Personally I find such topics fascinating and was therefore most interested in this first part, but I got the impression that Mlodinow was not as enthusiastic nor as comprehensive in his writing as in later parts. I thought there were some surprising omissions.
For example, when discussing the rise of tools, there was no mention of the great archaeological periods: the Iron, Copper and Bronze Ages.
We are told that the Egyptians developed reliable ways of calculating the area and circumference of a circle, and the volume of cylinders, but there was no mention of Pi; neither its origin nor use.
However, he does give an excellent overview of the importance of the work of Aristotle, who died in 322 BC, after which, “for the next nineteen centuries, to study nature meant to study Aristotle.”
Part II The Sciences
Here, Mlodinow really begins to warm to the subject, and you begin to realize that he is a physicist and not an anthropologist and is much more keen to write about Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Hooke, Boyle et al.
He underlines how science was done very differently in the past than it’s done now. In the time of Galileo and Copernicus, for example, “no-one had any idea how to measure time with any precision, and the concept of minutes and seconds was virtually unheard of.”
What I liked about this part were the historical biographies of the scientists he covers and the insights into their personal lives. We learn that “getting Isaac Newton to socialize was something like convincing cats to play Scrabble.” He says little is known about Robert Boyle’s mother “other than that she was married at seventeen and proceeded to bear fifteen children in the next twenty-three years, then dropped dead of consumption, which by then must have come as a relief.”
He explains how calculus came about, Newton’s Laws, Hooke’s work with prisms and colour, Boyle’s Law, Priestley’s investigation of oxygen and other gases, and Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes. All fascinating stuff.
I would have liked to learn more about early Chinese science, but this was not covered. And although he mentions the 100-year period when “medieval Islamic scientists made great progress in practical optics, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, overtaking the Europeans,” we are left wondering what those advances actually were.
Part III: Beyond the Human Senses
In his research for the third part, Mlodinow must have been like a starving kid with a bag of marshmallows, voraciously consuming the work of Dalton, Planck, Einstein, Faraday, Bohr, Heisenberg etc. and regurgitating it in what he hoped would be easily digestible morsels. Unfortunately, I’m not a physicist, so while this section didn’t give me stomach ache, it did give me a headache. I did come to admire these guys though for their huge intellects and desire to push back the boundaries of knowledge. They are the author’s real heroes and I get the impression that they were the reason why he undertook the book in the first place.
However, despite my struggles in the last few chapters and some surprising omissions, I believe this book would be a welcome addition to the library of anyone interested in science and human evolution, and the cultures that shaped the ideas of the scientists who were able to look at the world just a little bit differently.
Mlodinow gets the final word: “The most successful researchers are often the ones who ask the odd questions; questions that haven’t been thought of or that weren’t deemed interesting by others. For their trouble, these individuals will be considered odd, eccentric, maybe even crazy – until the time comes when they’re considered geniuses.”