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Paul Schapiro

Workers’ Bookshelf

A Treasury of Science

(29 March 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. XII No. 13, 29 March 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Treasury of Science
edited by Harlow Shapley, Samuel Rapport and Helen Wright
Harper and Brothers, 1946, xii 772 pages, $3.95.

The purpose of this book is stated in the preface: “We envisaged the audience as the person without specialized knowledge; we accepted as our purpose to give some realization of how the scientist works, of the body of knowledge that has resulted and of the excitement of the scientist’s search.”

To do this the editors have culled extracts and selections from scientists like Eddington, Huxley and Haldane who have been able to summarize lucidly for the benefit of the layman the findings in their fields and from the scientific interpreters like Kaempfert, de Kruif and Dietz who have been able to mediate between the specialists and the general public. The result is a book which is sometimes tough sledding but generally interesting and often fascinating.

The editors have arranged their material according to a plan that has logical sequence. The first part, an introduction by Harlow Shapley, describes the thrill of sharing in scientific discovery through reading and the extracts of the second part describe scientific method, the life of the scientist, the satisfaction he gets from making the universe and its workings more coherent to us. his elation at penetrating into the unknown.

The followings parts present the findings of the various sciences, beginning with the universe at large and ending with man. The subdivisions of each part continue the logical progression. Thus the third part, The Physical World, is subdivided into The Heavens, The Earth, Matter, Energy, Physical Law; the fourth part, The World of Life, is subdivided into The Riddle of Life, The Spectacle of Life, The Evolution of Life; the fifth and final part, The World of Man, is subdivided into From Ape to Civilization, The Human Machine, The Conquest of Disease, Man’s Mind and Man’s Future.

One may, therefore, dip into the book to read in and around his special interest, whether it be psychology or astronomy, or read it through from beginning to end. In reading it through, the reader will find the answers which science is able to give to such questions as what are the chances of life existing on other worlds, how far away are the stars, how old is the earth, how long has mankind been on earth, how long will the earth be able to support life – and how science is able to arrive at its estimates.

He will get a conception of the immensity of the universe (“our sun is just one star in a system of thousands of millions of stars; and that whole system is just one galaxy or thousands of millions of galaxies”) and of the complexity of the human machine, “the [brain] waves reflect the electrical activity of the ten billion cells which make up the cortical tissue of the brain. These cells may be likened to so many batteries whose frequency and intensity of electrical discharge are determined by relations between the chemicals which fill the cells and those which circulate outside in the blood”).

The conspicuous deficiency of this anthology is its omission of Marxism, the science of man as a social animal, which lays bare the laws behind the relations and antagonisms of men and behind the development of society, including the direction taken by natural science. The reason for this is explained of Marxism itself. Marxism has not been accepted as science by the official guardians of learning because its findings go counter to the interests of the ruling class of modern society, the capitalists. Just so did the reactionary Catholic Church of the seventeenth century refuse to accept Galileo’s proof that the earth revolves around the sun.

The absence of Marxism is not only an important gap in the book; it results in a false picture of the future of science and of society. We get a vivid impression of the great vistas being opened up in each scientific field, as knowledge accumulates, at a geometric ratio. There is no mention of the fact that progress is being held back or diverted to the purposes of destruction by an obsolete social system.

Yet today most of the physical science professors are under contract to the military authorities. This book was first published before the atom bomb exploded. Since then, many scientists have swung from the extreme of complacent optimism to that of fearful foreboding.

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