Tracing Revolutions

Revolutions in Science By I. Bernard Cohen Harvard University Press; 711 pp.; $25

WHEN THE GREAT English actor David Garrick finished his first performance on the English stage, another actor responded to Garrick's novel, naturalistic style by remarking. "If this young fellow be right, then we have been all wrong." As it happened, Garrick was right, and his success gradually became recognized as a revolution in the acting profession. Such sudden, dramatic breaks with accepted beliefs are the subject of I. Bernard Cohen's Revolutions in Science.

Thomas Professor of The History of Science Emeritus, is intellectually allied with Thomas Kuhn, whose publication in 1962 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions offered a fresh way of analyzing the history of scientific discovery. Cohen accepts the essential tenets of Kuhn's revolutionary treatise. Like Kuhn, Cohen rejects the evolutionary or cumulative explanation of the turnover of scientific knowledge in favor of the theory that scientific changes are unpredictable, profound intellectual developments that completely modify the way people think about an area of inquiry.

Cohen emphasizes several times early in his book that he is a historian by profession, less a theorist than a paradigmatic scholar. After setting forth his criteria for a scientific revolution, Cohen presents a series of case studies of revolutions and near revolutions, finally evaluating the critical perceptions of the concept of scientific revolution.

For a scientist to be regarded as a revolutionary, his theory must gain acceptance both by other scholars and scientists, and ultimately by the public. Cohen's skills as a historian are abundantly obvious as he puts men like Newton, Galileo, Darwin and Freud to the revolutionary test by scrutinizing their own writings and the responses of both their contemporaries and historians to their work.

Cohen is a superior scholar and his case studies make for stimulating reading. Particularly noteworthy are the chapters on 17th century figures including an especially pleasing section on Vesalius, Paracelsus and Harvey. The chapters on Darwin and Freud, and the saga of sea floor spreading, a revolution in earth science, are also splendidly wrought, commendable for their cogency and conciseness. Cohen's analysis focuses on revolutionary significance, but he simultaneously yields a wealth of stimulating narrative history.

Revolutions in Science succeeds because Cohen does not belief that science should be regarded only in its own terms. Science is inevitably bound up in other areas of intellectual history. Cohen embellishes his discussion of scientists from Copernicus to Einstein with reference to Thuycidides, Plato, Tacitus, Montaigne, English political history, Renaissance history, Jonathan Swift, Ben Jonson's masques, Rousseau, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and even the rebel yell of confederate soldiers in the American Civil War.

Cohen was relentless in his research. He traveled to Darwin's library in Kent, England to examine the copy of Das Kapital that Karl Marx presented to the naturalist. Revolutions in Science is the culmination of a lifetime of serious, inspired scholarship--and the results show it.

PERHAPS THE MOST intriguing aspects of Cohen's work are the impressions he renders of scientists themselves evaluating the scientific tradition. He does so in part by extracting compelling remarks from the writings of great scientists. There are also lighter anecdotes. Writes Cohen: I believe that all scientists would agree with the reply, reported by the late Paul Scars, to a colleague in the humanities who said, 'I suppose you will think I am old-fashioned, but I don't think that germs have anything to do with disease.' The response was, 'No, I don't think you are old-fashioned, I think you are ignorant.

But because he introduces such a vast amalgam of material into his discussion, Cohen sometimes encounters problems. One difficulty is the occasional superficial treatment of complex historical events. To write, as Cohen does, that there was little fear of a political revolution in 19th century England is simply incorrect. A more lamentable but necessary shortcoming is the book's limited space, restricting his discussion of some interesting subjects.

For example, Cohen argues that there is a parallel between the forms of political and scientific revolutions; he notes that Newton's Principia was published only a year before the first modern revolution, England's 1688 Glorious Revolution. This concept would make an intriguing book, but Cohen's incomplete discussion of it becomes frustrating.

A more pleasant aspect of his work is the surfeit of exciting topics Cohen offers for further reading and research. And Cohen's brief discussion of revolution in literature and art, and even of the concept of failure in history, are all worthy topics for future scholars.

Revolutions in Science is a book readily comprehensible to the layman Cohen has synthesized complicated scientific concepts such as quantum theory and Cartesian metaphysics, making them not only palatable but engaging. Revolutions in Science does not offer a revolution in itself. Yet Cohen's superb scholarship, his eloquent synthesis of hundreds of year of critical thought fits Alexander Pope's perception of wit; his book contains ideas "which have often been thought but never before been so well expressed."