Field of Science

Book review: Leonard Mlodinow's "The Upright Thinkers:The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos"

Occasionally it is a wise idea to step back and look at all of humanity's intellectual achievements and marvel at what we as a species have achieved and what all we take for granted. What is truly amazing is not that we created this multifaceted world around us but that we developed a systematic intellectual recipe - the scientific method - to do so in the first place. The evolution and products of that recipe are what Caltech physics professor Leonard Mlodinow dwells on in this wonderful and witty book that charts the products of human curiosity, and in the process we get a grand and elevating tour of humanity's ideas, from the beginnings of agriculture to the theory of relativity. It's one of those stories that makes us consider our intellectual and social faculties in awe; no wonder that I felt great reading it.

The book opens with one of the best first pages that I have ever come across, and while I won't give away the punch line it features a story about Mlodinow's father in the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald that drives home the powerful and innate nature of curiosity. Suffice it to say here that Mlodinow's father decided that he would rather go hungry than be in ignorance of the solution of a mathematical puzzle posed to him by an inmate. In fact Mlodinow's father who is a classic example of the American success story (émigré European tailor with little education, concentration camp survivor whose son becomes a well-known physicist and writer) makes an appearance frequently and movingly in the book.

Mlodinow leads us through most of the early defining events in the history of civilization; the settlement of cities, the development of agriculture, writing, mathematics and astronomy by the Sumerians, Mesopotamians, Mesoamericans and the Egyptians and the first stirrings of science in the great Greek cities. He dwells on the curious case of Aristotle who in spite of being a brilliant thinker failed to understand the key function of both experiments and mathematics (as emphasized by his forebear Pythagoras). Moving on from the Greeks, we meet the Romans who displayed another paradoxical mix of supreme ability for the practical application of mathematics and engineering without any interest in the theoretical foundations of these disciplines. In addition, Aristotle in particular and the Greeks in general saw everything in terms of purpose and therefore were loath to simply explain things in terms of their structure and composition. Sage thinkers like Democritus and Lucretius of course speculated tantalizingly on entities like atoms and laws of motion but these concepts never strayed away from being anything more than idle speculation.

It is only when we get to the Indians, the Chinese and the Arabs that we start to see the stirrings of a genuine appreciation for theoretical constructs like proofs, theorems and universal properties of geometric figures. The Arabs especially elevated both science and medicine and translated the texts of Aristotle while Europe was plunged into the darkness of ignorance and religious wars for four hundred years. But for some reason they then went into a downward spiral from which they still haven’t recovered. It was through the fortuitous passage of a few European men of learning that the Arabs’ writings got transported to Europe. But the Europeans still had to throw off the yoke of Aristotle. Even though Copernicus made a stellar start in initiating the revolution and made the first dent in usurping humans from their previously exalted place in the cosmos, the defining moment never really came until Galileo strode on the stage with his telescopes and heresies. Mlodinow tells us how Galileo really was the first modern scientist who valued both mathematics and the primacy of experiment in explaining the world. He also served as the first widely example of the clash between science and religion. From there it is but a short journey to the genius of Newton who truly elevated science to the level of a systematic investigation of nature that could often be unraveled using mathematics. Mlodinow communicates Newton’s brilliance as well as his flaws as a petty human being and a tireless student of occult claptrap.

The rest of Mlodinow’s book follows territory that would be well known to history of science aficionados. As a chemist I was especially delighted that he devotes two separate chapters to the rise of chemistry from the ashes of alchemy. Lavoisier, Priestley, Dalton and Mendeleev make honored appearances. The later parts of the book deal with the other great idea of human civilization – Darwin’s evolution by natural selection. The last parts of the book take us through the lives and work of the physics pioneers Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg. Mlodinow halts his grand tour of ideas roughly before World War 2, but not before making a passionate case for the foundational role that sheer curiosity has played in marking our species as something different from all other life on the planet.

Generally speaking Mlodinow does a great job leading us through the signal events of human intellectual history, and while it’s not realistic to expect him to cover every single discipline, individual and theory, I was disappointed by what I thought were some major omissions. For instance, how can one write a book on the history of science without mentioning Francis Bacon whose emphasis on observation was really paramount to the beginnings of modern science and still serves to guide its central tenets? And on the other end, how can one omit Rene Descartes whose emphasis on reason and pure thought has been almost equally important? There is also no discussion of neuroscience or the early achievements of medical science, both of which showcased curiosity in its finest hours. Mlodinow also curiously omits Faraday while mentioning Maxwell, and mentions Mendel in passing while dwelling on Darwin. Finally, it seems a bit of a parlor trick to write an entire book on scientific and technological betterment without saying anything about the evils to which the same humans have put their science.

No matter. An incomplete tour of everything that humanity has achieved through the agency of its unique curiosity is still better than no tour at all, and Mlodinow is a witty and sensitive guide on this journey. The next time you feel that the world is descending into chaos, unreason and malaise, pick up Mlodinow’s book and mull over what we as a species have achieved, both in terms of our ideas and the immensely gifted creatures that we have occasionally produced. You might just feel a bit better about yourself.


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  2. I shall be making part of this book required reading for my honors physics students. They will be cheered by the fact that those names in their textbooks are not gods, nor infallible humans and that science is not a dry and dead topic but a constantly evolving and messy human endeavor.

  3. You have carried out an impressive job and our own whole community will likely be thankful to you.


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