Some of the most celebrated scientific ideas and books of the 20th century may not be useful for us in this century, while lesser-known works of the past acquire new relevance. Here, then, is a selection of such works, along with an invitation for readers to critique and contribute their own suggestions to this list.
Popular discourse of science in the 20th century
The discourse of science in the twentieth century was dominated by understanding the atom, relativity, quantum mechanics, communication theory, space science and breaking the genetic code. Unfortunately some of the applications of this science has been disastrous. It has led to the atomic bomb, missiles, GM foods and huge consumerism and waste of resources. It has also led to an unprecedented degradation of ecology, global warming and huge inequalities. So much so that, today all life on our planet is endangered.
To be sure, science alone was not responsible for it and was mostly a contributing factor. However, it led some people to denounce science completely. At the same time, some of the other achievements of science that this author feels are relevant to our times have been neglected or seen as exceptions only.
The objective of this article is to restore these other achievements of science to their rightful place in the public discourse and help the new generation to choose useful sciences for our times. However, before doing that I must state that all science is one and advances in one field is related to advances in other fields in diverse ways. Also the great scientists like Einstein, Shannon or Watson and Crick will remain great even if their achievements have less relevance today.
Having said that, the case for frugality, using resources carefully remains valid, and the expenses involved in building the Large Hadron Collider or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) can still be questioned in spite of the exciting discovery of the Bosons or ‘God Particle’ or ‘Gravity Waves’ respectively. In the final analysis it is the political devils who must be condemned (some of them may even be scientists) who have misused the sciences.
Some others may prefer to say that it is the political system of capitalism which is to be blamed. Be that as it may, let us find what is useful for us today. Before leaving this section I would like to add that while Einstein is justly famous for his General Theory of Relativity, he got his Nobel Prize for his 1905 paper on photo electricity, which as we all know is very useful today!
The agenda of science for the 21st century
The twentieth century saw the destructive power of science and technology at its peak. True, as we have said above, there were great achievements too, but before all that, humanity and life on Earth has to survive. There were critics but they were muted. Today we have to pick up the threads from lesser-known scientific achievements which were also great and, in fact, are more useful today.
The science of the 21st century is not Physics, or Information Theory, but Agro Ecology – how to feed ourselves while saving ecology. The leader in this field is a tiny country called Cuba which developed it in the background of the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990) and the U.S. embargo (since 1963 until recently). Below, we list some of the great scientists and great books of the twentieth century which we believe are most relevant and useful today.
Some general remarks
This list is prepared by two of us (myself and Sajai Jose) and has several limitations – primarily, limitations of our knowledge and biases. Undoubtedly, others will add more books and some may want to delete some titles from this list. Most names are from English speaking world, though I am sure there are several great scientists from Europe, Russia and rest of the world who will qualify to be included in this list. Also, keeping the criteria of relevance and usefulness in mind, we have selected titles that remain highly influential, even though they cannot be strictly termed scientific works.
The common thing about this list is that all the scientists and experts do not criticise science per se though of course they have a critique of earlier works, which is normal. All of them were well known in their time and by and large are still in print. An interesting thing about many of the early scientists is that they studied physics and mathematics first before turning to other subjects. This underscores the fact that these subjects are very important to the discipline of science. Indeed, mathematics is called the language of science.
I would like to end with a call for others to suggest their own titles, so this leads to some discussion/debate – and also so that we may be introduced to unknown gems, who knows! Perhaps, we should have a separate list for social sciences with a critique of its discourse in the 20th century.
For this to be genuinely useful to the next generation, the list should be accompanied by an introduction to the author, about the book and some excerpts from the writings – a sort of reader. But that is a book project, which some of us may take up when the list is finalised. It can even be a collective effort. Meanwhile I am writing a couple of chapters as draft template for the book.
I look forward to your comments and your own suggestions for this list.
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Tailpiece: In ‘The Great Derangement‘, the novelist Amitav Ghosh’s book on climate change and the inability of contemporary art and culture – especially literary fiction – to deal with it, he writes: ‘If a list were to be made of the late twentieth-century novelists whose works remain influential today, we would find, I suspect, that many who once bestrode the literary world like colossi are entirely forgotten, while writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond Bradbury and Philip K. Dick are near the top of the list. ‘Ghosh’s comment trace the outlines of another, equally exciting discussion in the sphere of literary fiction. The same must apply to works in other genres, so feel free to post your comments and suggestions of important literary and non-scientific works on this page.
The great scientists and the great books of the 20th century
1. Kliment Timiryazev (1843 -1920) – Life of the Plant 1878, several reprints and is still in print.
2. J. C. Bose (1858-1937) – Response in The Living and Non-living 1902
3. Eugène N. Marais (1872-1936) – The Soul of White Ant (1925 in Afrikaans periodical called Die Huisgenoot and in English 1937)
4. Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) – The Biosphere 1926
5. Albert Howard 1(873-1947) – An Agricultural Testament 1940
6. J. C. Kumarappa (1892-1960) – Economy of Permanence 1945
7. Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) – Patrick Geddes in India (1947) Indian Edition 2015
8. Eugene P. Odum (1913 – 2002), with Howard T. Odum (1924-2002) – i. Fundamentals of Ecology, (first edition) 1953. ii Howard T. Odum, with Elisabeth C. Odum 1981 – Energy Basis for Man and Nature
9. Rachel Carson (1907-1964) – Silent Spring 1962
10. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) – The Entropy Law and the Economic Process 1971
11. Dennis L. Meadows, Jorge Randers, William W. and Behrens III – Limits to Growth: Report for The Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind 1972
12. Ivan Illich (1926-2002) – Medical Nemesis 1975
13. Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) – One Straw Revolution 1975 Indian Edition1986
14. William R. Catton Jr. (1926-2015) – Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change 1982
15. Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) & Isabelle Stengers (1949-) – Order Out of Chaos 1984
16.. Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) & Dorion Sagan (1959-) – Microcosmos 1986
18. Bill Mollison (1928-2016) – Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual 1988
19. Joseph C. Jenkins (1952-) – The Humanure Handbook 1996
20. Arnae Naess (1912-2009) Ecology of Wisdom (Writings by Arne Naess) 2008
21. Christopher Alexander (1936-) – The Nature of Order (4 volumes)
We look forward to your comments and suggestions for the list
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