Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search To Know His World and
Himself. New York: Vintage, 1985. (Originally, Random House, 1983)
This is a 684 page (excluding notes) exploration of the world around us and the men and women
who have tried to explore that world. Here are brief biographies of those discoverers and their
pathways to discovery, their mechanisms of invention. What is most impressive is Boorstein's
implicit thesis that discoveries are (almost) the result of obduracy, pig-headedness, stupidity, and
persistence in a belief which, while wrong, has a marvelous payoff.
He spends pages on the inventions which have had a payoff for man: the clock, the microscope,
the telescope, the compass; on travels (Columbus, Henry the Navigator, DeSoto); on bookmakers
(Gutenberg, Caxton, Adlus). He is enthusiastic about the adventurers who have brought about
this world of ours for he does attribute our world to individuals. Unfortunately, too, the book is
almost overwhelming with the facts and the trivia of invention and discovery and it is almost
impossible to absorb all of this material.
Most novel to me is the description of Chinese exploration, by sea, in the 14th and 15th
centuries. The tale is fascinating and contains this paradox: the Chinese quit exploring because of
their ethnocentrism. They believed their nation to be perfectly sufficient unto itself; to admit
otherwise would be to defame China. (I ought to add that the Chinese gave gifts to those
countries they visited rather than demanding tribute. This meant that exploring was expensive.
The Europeans never made that mistake. They explored to find markets for their products.)
Most emphasized throughout the book: ideas may prevent discovery. If one knows where one is
going, one goes there and nowhere else. One is committed to faith, to Galen, to Aristotle, to
science - and therefore, one cannot discover the new. The confirmation of the old is the loss of
the new. This historian is very much aware of the need for an innovator to argue, persuade,
propagandize, rationalize, convince, and connive, in securing support for his scheme. The
innovator is one who would change the world. Columbus, for example, spent years convincing
the Spaniards of his beliefs (which he had to support in spite of a great deal of contrary
evidence). Thus, deviance in science may be necessary!