We are stardust

Science: a history (1543-2001)

John Gribbin <em>Allen Lane, 650pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0713995033

The point about science is that it has a history. It is the only truly accumulative human activity and, consequently, it is the only one that can be said to have a continuous narrative thread. Einstein follows Newton in a way in which Blair does not follow Gladstone. The connections between the first pair are embedded in the equations of physics; the connections between the second are contentious and uncertain.

This also means that Einstein and Newton themselves are inessential in a sense in which Blair and Gladstone are not. Only the most unregenerate determinist would argue that personality plays no part in politics, but it is perfectly plausible to say that it plays none in science. Without Einstein, it is still likely we would have arrived at relativity; without Blair, it is inconceivable we would have arrived at . . . well, the overall Blairish quality of new Labour.

This would make a true history of science unimaginably dull, at least to the lay reader. In a true history, the names would be merely labels and the personalities irrelevant. All that would remain would be the more or less linear movement from heliocentrism to quarks, Copernicus and Gell-Mann having become redundant. In fact, such a history would itself be redundant. The present state of such a strictly cumulative, personality-free form of wisdom would be complete in itself and require no support from the past. Thus the only human activity with a true history is also the one that least needs it.

John Gribbin's huge book is, therefore, of necessity a good deal more than what it says it is. Personalities abound and there is a good deal of reinterpretation of previous accounts - Hooke, for example, is liberated from his usual role as Newton's understudy. This is history as we have come to know it in the unscientific sense.

As such, it will occasionally cause serious grating of teeth. Having, for example, established the impersonality of scientific progress, Gribbin goes on to say: "This might seem to beg the question of how the ball got rolling in the first place - the 'first cause'. But in this case it is easy to find the first cause - western science got started because the Renaissance happened."

Er . . . but . . . never mind, I haven't got the space.

In any case, the task Gribbin has set himself need not really be hampered by the nuances of historiography. He wants simply to provide a brisk and lucid overview of the current understanding of scientific progress. In this, he succeeds absolutely. The book is both comprehensive and clear. Gribbin explains difficult concepts as well as anybody, and he has organised the threads of his story so as to preserve their coherence without sacrificing their many entanglements.

That said, the book could easily be shortened without loss. Gribbin's determination to set his science in the context of personality and history frequently gets the better of him. For example, he says that Huygens's Treatise on Light was completed in Holland in 1691 "partly because of his deteriorating health, but also because the political climate in France had shifted once again. Bear with me, because the politics are more than a little complicated." There then follows a pointless page of French and Dutch politics that adds precisely nothing and subtracts a good deal of one's patience. At a conservative estimate, I'd say the book could easily lose 100 pages.

There is also the matter of Gribbin's inveterate Boy Scoutishness. This appears in hundreds of briskly jolly sentences such as the one that begins: "It is time to go back to the 16th century . . ." But my favourite example is a footnote to a passage on Friedrich Schiller, who wanted to be a poet but was forced to be a regimental surgeon. "This conjures up," runs the footnote, "an irresistible Pythonesque image of the surgeon leaning over his patient while clutching a scalpel and confiding 'I really wanted to be a poet, you know', before setting to work." One is confronted with a grinning Boy Scout geek and, at this point, one still has 350 pages to go - one has to go and get the book back before the builders remove the skip.

But never mind: he often gets it right, making important and not often understood issues clear. After the 18th century, for example, he points out that his biographical sections will have to become more sketchy, simply because there is such a huge expansion of the scientific effort: "The story of science itself, rather than that of the individuals who contributed to the story, becomes the central theme in the history of science, and it becomes harder to know the dancer from the dance." No credit given to Yeats, but a crucial point because it draws attention to the sense in which science became superhuman.

And if such a history can have a single theme, then this is it - the humbling of mankind before the explanatory power of science. We are, writes Gribbin, perhaps unconsciously echoing Pascal, "almost exactly halfway in size between atoms and stars". Atoms and stars are, relatively speaking, simple things; whereas we, existing on a scale where molecules can bind together to form vast numbers of compounds, are stupendously complex.

Yet we can take no pride in this complexity. "The most profound discovery of the whole scientific endeavour", writes Gribbin, is the discovery that the four most common elements in the universe are hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the same as the four most common elements in the human body. As Joni Mitchell once sang, we are stardust, but she was wrong about us being golden. We're just matter as usual.

Gribbin does not run with this as the most profound thinkers of our time - James Lovelock, E O Wilson, John Gray - have done. He simply reverts to Boy Scout mode: "Who knows what the next five centuries, let alone the next five millennia, might bring?" After 600 pages, it's not enough, and it never will be.

Bryan Appleyard's most recent book is Brave New Worlds: genetics and the human experience (HarperCollins)