If You Only Had Time for One Book...The Upright Thinkers

April 03, 2020

Hey guys!

The Covid situation has left most of us bothered and flustered. Sometimes it seems like there is no (positive) end in sight, but I guess all we can do is to hang on to hope and ride it out as a community.

So I would like to share a very enjoyable book with you! Now, my diet of books usually consist of 70% fiction/fluff and 10% self help (decluttering manuals especially) and 20% non-fiction aka "serious works".

So under "serious works", I tried to tackle books from Stephen Hawking (Took me 2-3 tries and many, multiple sittings), Noam Chomsky (Many multiple sittings, could not digest and did not complete), and most recently, 'The Upright Thinkers' by Leonard Mlodinow.



What's it about:
An entertaining read of how humans evolved and developed scientific thought over the ages.

Author's Style
Mlodinow's style of imparting information is markedly different from Stephen Hawking.

To make some dry sounding scientific information and concepts more easily understood, he wittily draws parallels to commonplace items and occurrences, or includes anecdotes about his father, a Holocaust survivor, or his family. This makes the book, despite it being chock full of facts, very charming and easy to read.

Here are some examples, including some that I find very humorous.

On Alchemy and its early practitioners:
"An Egyptian named Bolos of Mendes (200 BC) ended every 'experiment' with the incantation "One nature rejoices in another. One nature destroys another. One nature masters another." Sounds like he's listing the different things when two people get married." 

I lol'ed.

Someone advising Charles Darwin on his book on Natural Selection, that he would be better off writing "a book about pigeons", because "Everyone is interested in pigeons." HAHA

Darwin studying barnacles until he wrote "I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before."

In the chapter explaining how people used to think that living creatures just materialised:

In the 17th century, a chemist went so far to recommend a recipe to create mice from everyday materials: just put a few grains of wheat in a pot, add dirty underwear (lol), and wait twenty-one days. The recipe reportedly worked.

The chapters move through the eras, and will delve deep into major players of the day. Here are some I would like to highlight:

Paracelsus
Paracelsus (born 1493) revamped alchemy and called it "iatrochemia", which will later be the basis of the English word "chemistry".

"He was not subtle in promoting himself and was prone to making statements like 'All the universities and all the old writers put together have less talent than my ass'. Another time, after announcing that he would reveal the greatest secret in medicine, he unveiled a pan of feces."

This book made me grin and giggle to myself often. I was so delighted that my nonfiction pick was not as dry or difficult as I expected. It's kind of amusing and relieving to know that people of the past behaved just like some offensive people of this century too.

People of the past can be so eccentric sometimes. There also seems to be a fine line between being a genius and a lunatic. Maybe you have to be a little crazy to 'create disruption' and make important discoveries and inventions.

Galileo (born 1564)
  • Galileo's daddy was a well-known lute player and music theorist. He wanted his son to have a lucrative job and sent him to study medicine (like every well-meaning Asian parent LOL). What did Galileo do? He decided to study Math and often ended up in debt.
  • Galileo furthered science, which was then dominated by Aristotelian Physics that involved observation and theorising. Galileo took it further by doing experiments and explorations, replacing Aristotle's law of free fall with his own.
  • However he is most famous for proving that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but an ordinary planet that orbits the sun, supporting Copernicus' (born 1473) theory. He also invented the telescope, which was sort of a side hustle for him then. (lol)
  • Galileo would come into conflict with the Vatican and was put under 'house arrest' which stipulated that visitors were allowed, provided that they were not mathematicians. He still received them though, and died in the presence of his son and a few mathematicians. (He died in the same year Newton was born, coincidence? Reincarnation?)
  • His works were also banned by the pope, but later writings were smuggled out and eventually published. 
  • Galileo was denied a grand funeral by the church and was given a small funeral instead. However, his loss was greatly felt. 
Newton
Most of us at least know that Newton 'discovered' gravity and created three popular laws of motion.
But did you know he was anti-social AF?

  • "Newton achieved intellectual triumph but never love." "Newton was unpopular with his own mother. He was premature and born on 25 December 1642. He was so tiny at birth that two women who were sent for supplies dawdled and took their time, certain that the child would be dead before they returned. His father died a few months earlier and his mother eventually remarried, shipping him off to his grandmother. "
  • "Newton wrote diaries and saved every scrap that he wrote on, including feelings about his parents, accounts of every penny he spent, and his thoughts on religion, mathematics and philosophy.
  • "Bored by mathematics and furious with his criticism with optics, Newton virtually cut himself off from the entire scientific community, which would last for the next decade." This dude is so extreme. So what did he study? "alchemy and the mathematical and textual analysis of the Bible." Wow. I did not know that for sure.
  • Newton believed that the Bible promised the truth would be revealed to men of piety. He also believed that great alchemists hid important insights in coded form. He would "waste" the 1670s-1684 (15 years!) on these two pursuits.
  • The Newton chapter is a dense one and it actually enlightened me a little on some Fullmetal Alchemist episodes. Lol. It also stirs my desire to read the Three Body Problem AGAIN! 

Did you know? (Some extra fun bits out of the many littered through the book)
Robert Hooke peered at a piece of cork through his homemade microscope, and became the first human to see what he would call 'cells'. He chose the name because they reminded him of the tiny bedrooms assigned to monks in their monasteries.

Later, another man called Leeuwenhoek will take microscopes to a whole new level, and discover what he would call "animalcules". What a cute name! Today we call them microorganisms.

Alexandria had a place called "The Museum", which housed one hundred scientists and scholars that received stipends, free housing and meals from the Museum's kitchen. It includes a grand library of half a million scrolls, an observatory, dissection labs, gardens, zoos, and other facilities for research. Sounds like a dream! Sadly, it was destroyed by fire in the third century A.D.

Concluding thoughts
The book was very enlightening and entertaining for me! It is non-intimidating way to get to know how science has evolved over the centuries, and the book includes plenty of fun tidbits of 'the greats' that you probably never knew.

After reading this, I am inclined to go check out Newton's Principia.  Also, since this mostly covers the scientific world of Europe, I sure hope to find a similar book that covers Asian and Middle Eastern scientific eras.

Happy Reading!

Skye

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