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Five Books Every (Global) Historian of Science Should Read

Published: 18 March 2022 - James Poskett

My new book, Horizons: A Global History of Science, is out next week. Without the work of the many scholars who have done so much to challenge the existing Eurocentric historiography, I would not have been able to write such a book. A lot of this scholarship has only been published in the last decade or so, and is just starting to make its way onto core reading lists and into the mainstream of the discipline. Indeed, one of the great joys of writing Horizons was to have the opportunity to read so widely—to take in the scholarship on everything from early modern African astronomy to twentieth-century Mexican genetics.

In this post, I want to highlight and celebrate some of this new and exciting work. These are five books, in rough chronological order, that I think every historian of science should read, not just those who are explicitly interested in global histories. These are books that, whilst often focusing on particular regions or periods, nonetheless speak to the bigger concerns of the discipline. And in fact, for anyone more broadly interested in the history of science, who wants to know where the field is headed, these books are a great place to start.

This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive—there is so much good new work out there. But these five books really do showcase the best of the future of the discipline.

The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan by Federico Marcon

This is a beautifully written and theoretically deep account of the development of natural history in Tokugawa Japan. What I particularly liked about Marcon’s The Knowledge of Nature is how it takes the major themes of early modern natural history, and then writes that history from the perspective of Japan. In other words, what does Enlightenment natural history look like when we start with Japanese botanist Kaibara Ekiken (1630–1714), rather than Carl Linnaeus (1707–78)? Marcon also does an incredible job of weaving together the longer cultural, religious, and scientific history of Japan with the more specific economic and political changes that were taking place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The book opens with supernatural foxes and ends with cash cropping. In charting this change, Marcon reveals many parallels with the traditional European story. Japanese natural history was transformed through a series of economic and political connections, not just with Europe, but also with the wider world.

Learned Patriots: Debating Science, State, and Society in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire by M. Alper Yalçinkaya

Histories of Ottoman science have undergone a major transformation in the last couple of decades. Much of that work, for understandable reasons, has focused on the early modern period, during which the Ottoman Empire was at its height. Much less, until recently, has been written about nineteenth-century Ottoman science. As such, there has been an unhelpful tendency to project an image of ‘decline’ onto late Ottoman science. M. Alper Yalçinkaya’s Learned Patriots is one of a number of recent books which challenges that narrative. Yalçinkaya charts the history of late Ottoman science, up to and including the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. In doing so, Yalçinkaya paints a much more complex picture of Ottoman science, one not simply of decline, but of overlapping domestic and international religious, political, military and economic concerns. The Ottoman state, it turns out, was deeply invested in the ideological and practical power of modern science. From chemistry lectures at what became Istanbul University to mathematics classes at the Imperial School of Military Engineering, nineteenth-century Istanbul was far from the scientific backwater it was later portrayed as.

China and Albert Einstein by Danian Hu

Histories of reception are a big part of the history of science. How were the ideas of figures such as Newton, Darwin, and Einstein taken up and reworked in other contexts, particularly national contexts? When answering that kind of question, historians of science have tended to focus on countries like France, Britain, Germany, and the United States. Only recently, with books such as Danian Hu’s China and Albert Einstein, do we have a more detailed account of reception histories beyond Europe and America. Crucially, Hu’s book demonstrates that Chinese scientists were not simply passive recipients of Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. Rather, they played an active role in interpreting Einstein’s work and furthering the development of modern physics. Zhou Peiyuan (1902–93), a Chinese physicist who lived through both the Revolution of 1911 and the later formation of the People’s Republic of China, corresponded with Einstein and made a major contribution to the mathematics of general relativity in his own right. Throughout China and Albert Einstein, Hu charts with great precision the many ways in which the changing political situation shaped the making of modern physics in China. This is a stellar example of reception history beyond Europe.

Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity by Elise K. Burton

I’ve long been suspicious of area studies. That was until I read Elise K. Burton’s hugely important recent book, Genetic Crossroads. More than any other book I’ve read, Genetic Crossroads demonstrates the possibility of combining a deep study of a particular region (including the relevant languages) with a global historical framing. Burton rewrites the history of modern genetics in the Middle East, moving across Turkey, Iran, and Israel. But this is no traditional area study. Rather, it is a global history, but written from the perspective of the Middle East. Burton weaves together the careers of Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli scientists with those from Britain and the United States, tracking the movement of people, specimens, data, and ideas. Genetic Crossroads really is a masterclass in how to combine area studies with the global history of science. And if that wasn’t enough, it is also a book which moves across traditional chronologies. Burton covers the whole twentieth century, and then moves into the twenty-first. This is a ‘big picture’ account of the history of Middle Eastern genetics, not simply another case study. As a consequence, Burton is able to connect up the longer history of modern genetics with the contemporary politics of identity and nationality in the Middle East.

Atomic Junction: Nuclear Power in Africa After Independence by Abena Dove Osseo-Asare

For a long time, histories of science in sub-Saharan Africa were simply histories of colonialism. There were histories of various nineteenth-century European explorers, along with the surveys and mapping that went with the formation of the colonial state. More recently, there has been a new wave of scholarship examining the history of science in postcolonial Africa. This is important work, but it still tends to reflect a particular vision of science in Africa. The vast majority of the existing work focuses on histories of biology and medicine, the fields which colonial and postcolonial development agencies championed. Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s fantastic recent book, Atomic Junction, provides a very different picture of postcolonial science in Africa. This book is one of my absolute favourites of the last few years. Osseo-Asare combines oral histories, ethnography, and archival work in Britain, Ghana, and Russia, amongst other locations, to produce a radically different account, not just of African science, but of Cold War science. She charts the tumultuous development of nuclear research in postcolonial Ghana, as politicians and physicists fought for ‘scientific equity’. There is one particularly outstanding chapter on the experiences and careers of a group of Ghanaian scientists who were sent to study nuclear physics in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. A must read.

Dr James Poskett is Associate Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Horizons: A Global History of Science (Penguin, 2022) and Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science (Chicago, 2019).