Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer S. Uglow

I rarely review a book that I don't finish, but I think I will make an exception for Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer S. Uglow. It is really an outstanding book for someone interested in eighteenth century science and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Uglow has brought together a tremendous amount of research on the work and lives of a group of ambitious men who wanted to understand the universe and make a good living at the same time. The writing is clear and interesting. A good reading of the book explains much about how science and industry have transformed our world in the last three hundred years. Lunar Men would make a good textbook for a class.

I'd like to finish Lunar Men sometime, but with 588 pages, there is so much of it. I renewed it twice but never got more than twenty-five pages read in a day - often only ten or fifteen - and I would have to stop and read something else. There are so many names and so much detail. Supposedly the book is about five men who were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England: Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, and Joseph Priestly. The author describes and tells stories about them and about many of their scientific and industrial associates as well. I had to refer to the book jacket several times to remember who the five primary subjects were. I could have used a scorecard to keep track of the secondary characters.

I generally found myself liking the men, who seemed to feel that their work would create a better world. They formed good friendships and cared for their families well. But they were not saints by any means. They harbored many class prejudices and saw no moral problems with working men, women, and children in their factories or digging canals from sun up to sun down or later for little pay. They also could not foresee the environmental problems they hatched. They especially seemed to use lead and mercury often. On the positive side, they seemed sympathetic to the American colonies, opposing the repressive taxing measures from Parliament and King George as bad for business. They all seemed to be friends with Benjamin Franklin.

Because these men pretty much created the world in which we now live, Lunar Men seems an important book.

Uglow, Jennifer S. Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0374194408.

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