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Science and the Classics, D'Arcy Thompson (1940).
I haven't reported on an old book in some time, but I just read D'Arcy Thompson's Science and the Classics [Oxford University Press, 1940], and I think it's a book that might be of interest to those who enjoy the history and philosophy of science. Thompson [1860-1948] is best known for his two-volume opus, On Growth and Form [2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1942], where he argues that mathematics can be a powerful tool in describing biological form. Over the years, this book has been influential in a rather subversive way. In the years following its publication, there was little work done in morphology which derived directly from Thompson's ideas, but his analysis was so fascinating that generations of biologists have found inspiration in it. Now, as mathematics is coming to be used more and more in biology, and as mathematical and physcial analysis of biological forms has become a popular focus of research [see Wainwright's Axis and Circumference, Harvard University Press, 1988 and Steven Vogel's Life's Devices, Princeton University Press, 1988], Thompson's ideas are referred to often.
But Thompson was interested in more than morphology; he was also a life-long student of the Classics. He went to the Classics for refreshment and inspiration, but he brought his scientific knowledge with him so. As he writes in the title essay of Science and the Classics, in reading the Classics, "the scientific man . . . can always in their infinite variety find something spoken directly to him" (p. 7). He tells of reading Homer, Aristotle, Aristophanes, and others looking specifically for references to birds, and then adds "I no longer read in the same way, yet I know no pleasanter occupation" (p.8). The results of this pleasant occupation was A Glossary of Greek Birds [Oxford University Press, 1936], which was followed by A Glossary of Greek Fishes [Oxford Unviersity Press, 1945].
In another essay, Thompson discusses Aristotle as a naturalist. He has obviously read all the philosopher's extant works on natural history, and gives a very balanced review of them. He wonders at Aristotle's exquisite knowledge of fish species which even present-day biologists have difficulty distinguishing from each other. But he is also willing to point out the flaws in Aristotle's observations. He argues that Aristotle had no real classification system, though many observers have tried to find such a system in his writings. Thompson notes an "unbending, unchanging classification of animals would have been something foreign to all his logic" (p. 71), and claims this was because Aristotle was not arranging specimens for a museum or attempting to create a scale of nature.
In his reading of the Classics, Thompson does not confine himself to writings that have a biological content. In other essays, he writes of astronomy in the Classics in general, and then more specifically, of Plato's theory of the planets. The book also contains a thorough analysis of games and toys referred to in Greek and Roman writings. Here, as elsewhere, you can tell that Thompson had great fun accumulating the references he cites: "If you keep your eyes open as you read for allusions to games and playthings, you will find that Plato and Socrates, Aristophanes and Theocritus, Horace and Ovid were all steeped in nursery-lore; and there is scarcely an ancient author in whom such allusions are not to be found" (p. 149). Since for Thompson mathematics was an important tool in the study of living form, it's not surprisng that there is also an essay here on Greek mathematics, specifically, on number theory.
As you can tell, this book ranges widely. It is not a cohesive whole, but a collection of essays and addresses written between 1910 and 1935. Not all of the pieces have to do with the Classics, or even with science. Thompson was born in Edinburgh and spent many years teaching first at the University of Dundee and then at the University of St. Andrews. With his background, it is not surprising that he was steeped in the lore of Scotland as well as in the lore of ancient Greece and Rome, and one essay gives a splendid tour of St. Andrews, Scotland.
As we near the 21st century, why should we be bothered with this little book with its rather quirky array of essays? I think there are several answers to this question. First, and most importantly, it is simply very enjoyable to read. Thompson takes delight in his subject matter, and he clearly transmits that delight to his readers. His essay on "Granny," a sea anemone that was kept alive by amateur naturalists for sixty years, is unforgettable. Second, you will learn a lot. Thompson comes from a tradition in British education which imbued in students an intimate knowledge of the Classics. We come from a very different tradition and can benefit from the depth and breadth of Thompson's knowledge, from his masterful survey of Aristotle's biology, for example. Finally, reading this book gives insights into the thoughts of a biologist who is famous for a very different kind of book. Reading Science and the Classics gives you a much fuller picture of the man who wrote On Growth and Form. If you want to know still more, you can go to the biography written by his daughter, Ruth D'Arcy Thompson, which though uncritical, gives a great deal of background information [D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson: The Scholar-Naturalist, Oxford University Press, 1958].
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