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On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and…
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On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir…

by Lisa Jardine

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Another remainder table special. I learned quite a bit about Christopher Wren; in addition to be the architect of St. Paul’s and 50-odd other London churches, he was also a accomplished instrument maker, astronomer, medical experimenter, physicist and general scientific Renaissance Man. I was surprised and delighted to find that one of the towers at St. Paul’s was designed to be usable as an observatory, and that the Fire Monument had a central coaxial opening allowing it to function as a zenith telescope and a laboratory for testing pendulums and barometers. There’s a amusing little anecdote illustrating how the times were on the cusp between old and new ways of thinking; at a dinner with Robert Hooke, Wren discusses Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion but also boasts that he’s cured his wife’s thrush (I assume the disease, and not a pet bird, but you never know) by hanging a bag of live woodlice around her neck.


Nevertheless the book was not very satisfying. The author’s focus jumps around too much; every time an acquaintance or contemporary of Wren appears, there’s a detour to discuss that person’s life, politics, antecedents, and so on. The attention of the book repeatedly shifts from the reign of Charles I to the Civil War to the Commonwealth to the Restoration to William and Mary as various new subjects comes up; the literary equivalent of ADHD. Wren’s own life frequently get lost in this mass of peripheral detail.


Next the author has a penchant for quoting long excerpts from period documents in the original language. Thus We get Variant Spelings, Ye Obsolete Usages, Crptk Abrviatns, and Excessive Capitalization. A few of these are OK; it gives immediacy to letters between Flamsteed and Newton, for example, but I see no reason for page-long exact quotes of contract specifications, royal proclamations, and so on.


There’s also a strange fascination with the Order Of The Garter. Wren and his family had various associations with it, but I see no particular reason to give it the attention the book does. I get the vague feeling that the author originally planned to use this material to support some argument for a particular aspect of Wren’s life, eventually abandoned the argument, but left all the supporting material in anyway.


I also find the lack of scientific background information puzzling. The author brings up various scientific issues - the need to use extremely long telescopes and the Longitude problem, for example - but never explains to the reader why the things are the way they are (no solution for chromatic aberration except long focal length and Sir Cloudsley Shovel’s unplanned tour of the Scilly Islands). Perhaps she assumes her intended reader will already know these things; she’s written several other books on history of science.


I have to give this one three stars. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 16, 2017 |
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(Preface) Reader, if you require a monument, look around you.
(Text) On the afternoon of 10 January 1642, King Charles I left his Palace at Whitehall in London without warning, accompanied by his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, his eldest son, the twelve-year-old heir to the throne, Charles, Prince of Wales, and his daughter Princess Mary (who had been married to William, Prince of Orange the previous year, but who, at barely ten, was too young permanently to join the household of her new Dutch husband).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 006095910X, Paperback)

Everything Sir Christopher Wren undertook, he envisaged on a grander scale -- bigger, better, more enduring than anything that had gone before. A versatile genius who could have pursued a number of brilliant careers with equal virtuosity, he was a mathematical prodigy, an accomplished astronomer, a skillful anatomist, and a founder of the Royal Society. Eventually, he made a career in what he described disparagingly in later life as "Rubbish" -- the architecture, design, and construction of public buildings.

Through the prism of Wren's tumultuous life and brilliant intellect, historian Lisa Jardine unfolds the vibrant, extraordinary emerging new world of late-seventeenth-century science and ideas.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:41 -0400)

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