The History of Science, written and read by Peter Whitfield (5hrs unabridged, Naxos, £16.99)
If, broadly speaking, science can be summed up as the intellectual quest for knowledge, it’s hard to put a precise date on humanity’s first scientific achievement – though we may deduce from the remains left in paleolithic burial chambers that people were speculating about the mysteries of life and death tens of thousands of years ago. For practical purposes, apart from brief references to Stonehenge and the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of southern Europe, Whitfield’s four-part history starts with the invention of writing (Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics) a mere 5,000 years ago. “It is no accident that the pyramids, the greatest physical symbols of ancient civilisation, belong to the age of the discovery of mathematics and writing.”
This is Whitfield’s fourth and easily his most ambitious audio history. He took a leisurely eight hours to stroll through English poetry and sprinted through the French revolution and Darwin for Naxos’s single-CD In a Nutshell series, but the story of western science at 1,000 years per hour is a tall order. It doesn’t quite work out like that, of course. It’s bottom-heavy, parts three and four covering respectively the 19th-century machine age and a spectacular list of 20th-century scientific and technological milestones – quantum physics, the big bang, DNA, genetic engineering and the internet account for half the book. Impressed as I am by E=mc2, as a non-scientist I can relate more to the physics taught by Empedocles of Sicily circa 450BC. All matter, he reckoned, was composed of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, which, mingled in varying proportions, produced all the substances of the universe and were in turn governed by the two greatest forces, love and strife.
Listening to this made me ruefully aware of my ignorance. I had no idea that the Venerable Bede fixed the dating of Easter or that having to calculate the exact direction of Mecca and when to pray ensured that Islam had the best mathematicians and astronomers, or that the first steam engines of the industrial revolution required the output of an entire iron foundry to make and a coal mine to run. Who said boffins were boring?
Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, read by Rupert Farley (13½hrs unabridged, Whole Story Audio, £24.99)
If you’re a fan of his Saturday column in this newspaper you won’t need any encouragement from me to buy this passionate, hard-hitting, meticulously researched and often very funny swipe at the so-called experts, downright quacks and media flakes who populate the world of science. Nutritionists and advocates of homeopathic medicine come off worst. Mea culpa. I reviewed a health book a couple of years ago by a vitamin-pill guru who turns out to be one of Goldacre’s biggest bêtes noires. I never liked omega-3 anyway.
The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains Almost Everything, by Robert H Frank, read by Jeff Harding (7hrs unabridged, Whole Story Audio, £19.99)
After science, the other gaping hole in my education is economics. Ever since the runaway success of Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics five years ago, there has been a rash of books eager to persuade people that economics is cool. This is the latest. Frank, a professor at Cornell University, bases his manual on frequently asked questions from students (not necessarily economics students) and relates his answers to economics. Why are milk cartons rectangular and drinks cans cylindrical? Why is it easier for a guy to pull if he already has a partner? Why are brown eggs more expensive than white ones, and, here’s one from me, do we care? But for Jeff Harding’s feisty reading, I wouldn’t have bothered to find out, but yes, if you like this sort of thing, it’s fascinating.