The practice of science, writes Lisa Jardine in Ingenious Pursuits, her "intellectual anthropology" of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, is an extension of the pressures and accidents of everyday life, an adventure story "of chance, creative misunderstanding, wrong turnings, sudden opportunities taken, succumbing to sponsorship, and the inspired ingenuity of individual men and women".
To Jardine there was certainly nothing alien or strange about these sagas of scientific discovery. She grew up as the daughter of an artist mother and a scientist father, Jacob Bronowski, whose popular TV series The Ascent of Man made him a celebrity and infuriated his academic colleagues. Undoubtedly her own background has contributed both to Jardine's clarity as an intellectual historian and her matter-of-fact confidence in the underlying harmony of the scientific and artistic minds. She argues that in every field, "imaginative problem-solving is at the root of all human inventiveness" and that technological inventiveness is the place where ingenuity can be seen in action. In a book that is encyclopaedic in its erudition, range and detail, with a huge cast of players, Jardine never loses sight of the immediacy and excitement of scientific discovery. In lucid chapters on the telescope, the microscope, the pendulum clock, the air-pump and the balance-spring watch, she shows how the great scientists of the 17th century were able to make the precise measurements that led to the understanding and mapping of the natural world. Then, in the most fascinating part of the book, she follows the paths of the scientist-explorers travelling all over the world in search of exotic flowers, animals, plants and minerals, from chocolate to quinine, and which became the basis of great commercial fortunes, transformed landscapes, national collections and consumer addictions.
Indeed her scientists have the obsessional and imaginative qualities of artists. Hans Sloane, for example, was a physician, naturalist and indefatigable collector who set out for Jamaica with the entourage of the new governor, Lord Albermarle, in 1687, with the intention of bringing back a huge collection of plants and pickled insects and animals. He hoped to ship back some live specimens as well, but they never made it; a seven-foot yellow snake he was keeping in a jar and feeding with kitchen scraps escaped and ran around the house until it was shot by the servants. But on his return to England he made so much money marketing his Jamaican discovery of cocoa that he was able to acquire just about every major botanical collection on the market, specimens he left to London for the improvement and benefit of mankind which became the founding collections of the British Museum.
But although Pepys had a microscope, and other writers and painters were interested in playing with the latest gadgets, artists were not the problem-solving whizzes who were transforming the world. Jardine democratically stresses the way the scientific revolution came about through the combined attention of "creative talents of all kinds, from every walk of life". But the overall effect of her effort to demystify scientific ingenuity, paradoxically, is to render these discoveries even more astonishing and to raise many questions about scientific genius and social privilege. Obviously creative talents of some kinds were excluded from the community of busy correspondence, society membership and government sponsorship that made travel and invention possible. The Dutch East India Company's great botanical garden at the Cape of Good Hope was tended by 54 slaves. Technicians and assistants had to take an oath of secrecy about the work they did for powerful scientists such as Boyle. Opportunities, however sudden, came only to those who were already placed in a social and educational environment to take advantage of them.
If being a woman can be considered a walk of life, women seem to have been virtually absent from the scientific revolution, and their dismaying lack of participation is made even more emphatic by the stories of the one or two women who did, against the odds, display the requisite qualities of curiosity, ingenuity and persistence. The botanical illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian went to Surinam for two years at her own expense, with her daughter Dorothea, to study and draw the local insects and flowers. When she returned, in poor health and financial difficulties, no eager scientific community was open to her discoveries, although she was eventually able to sell some of her specimens. The astronomer Maria Winkelmann was never allowed to have any official position in the German astronomical community, nor to have her name on the comet she discovered in 1702. Another young woman astronomer was rumoured to be the mistress of the brilliant Edmond Halley.
Jardine's book ends with an upbeat epilogue on the discovery of the structure of DNA, an example of the highly personal factors involved in scientific breakthrough. James Watson's The Double Helix, she explains, created a furore upon its publication because of its revelations of the ambition, competitiveness and arrogance of the young men involved, including the way they marginalised their co-worker Rosalind Franklin, and their story "closely resembles any number of stories in this book". To Jardine, putting her back into the laboratory shows how scientific advance is part of "ordinary life, with ordinary gifts and failings, ordinary passions and emotions".
She believes that "science is what we all do all the time. Nobody can tell my readers that you have to be someone special to embark on an exploration of the world around you." That may be so, but as this superb and ebullient book makes clear, scientific progress is about winning and, in science as in the rest of ordinary life, winning is never just a matter of chance.
Elaine Showalter is professor of English at Princeton University