Letting the rest of the world go by
One of the great books on Eastern Civilizations. This book is a perfect listen for those who don't like history with all of its dates since he tells the story functionally not chronologically. The book looks at history by each civilization and by function (philosophy, poetry, prose, people's language, government and so on). The author seems to excel when he's talking about a country's philosophy and uses it to describe the country's culture. The section on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism are the best I have ever read.
It's hard to condense 2000 or more years into a digestible understandable format, but the author does it and the listener really gets to understand our place in the universe a little bit better because of it. The author magically takes random events, turns it into information, processes it into knowledge by giving it narrative and then gives the listener wisdom he didn't have before. I did smile out loud when we were told about Akbar the "illiterate intellectual". He would have the great works of his time read aloud to him. After having listened to this work, I too feel like the illiterate intellectual (since reading puts me to sleep and listening does not. Thank you Audible for making this book available!).
I will give a bit of advice to any potential listener that I know I wouldn't follow myself (my favorite kind of free advice). Don't listen to the first eight hours or so of the book on prehistoric man and early prehistory. He's just wrong and full of prejudices of the time. I did listen to it because I have a linear personality and just can't bring myself to not listen to it all, but the only value I got is that how little they knew about that period of man in 1935 and how they would extrapolate falsely and a boatload of the author's Western prejudices sneaked through.
I would be amiss to not comment on some of the incredibly absurd statements that permeate the book (meat eaters stink, "the average Japanese man today has the sensitivity and shrewdness of the Jew", Hindus are a superstitious people, and so on). I would recommend just ignore such statements and take the book as the masterpiece it is. I have yet to find any other book that covers Eastern Civilizations better and I definitely will read the other volumes in the series.
The author writes in a straightforward manner and explains the science in a highly entertaining manner. If I ever sit next to somebody in a waffle house who starts talking about his life stories, I can easily pivot into one of the five stories splendidly presented in this book. The writer was that good at telling the stories about the blunders, and having listened to it I can probably relate the whole book and it's major points without missing a beat. That tells me the book was well presented.
The narrator made the book better than the written book. I found some of his voices a real hoot, particularly Darwin and Einstein. I would definitely recommend the audible version versus the written form of this book.
For me, this book was a template for having worked in the real world surrounded around very smart people who would fall into the blunders that are illustrated by these five stories. I don't think the author realized how relevant the stories could be for most working stiffs and the kind of people we often have to work with.
Instead of picking Einstein's blunder as the cosmological constant, he should have picked Einstein's failure to accept quantum mechanics after having co-discovered it and wasting his time on the GUT (grand unified theorem) outside of the context of quantum physics. I know why he picked the cosmological constant. It's a funner story to relate and is more relevant today because of the mystery of Dark Energy, and the word blunder is not usually associated with that for Einstein and the cosmological constant is.
Overall, the stories are well presented, and it was narrated much better than it was written, but the author missed a great opportunity to make a better book about the foibles of life in general.
The book listens like a series of lectures given to undergraduates (or maybe even graduates) in the liberal arts who want to understand how science developed and how we finally got to Newton. Newton changes everything, and the author will explain why the greatest book ever about the physical world is Newton's Principia ("Principles of Natural Philosophy"). The author outlines the steps that it took for the world to create a Newton. But just like in a college course you have to learn a lot of difficult things (which you'll quickly forget after the class) in order to understand the big picture.
In the process of getting there the author will describe in detail the theories of the early thinkers. To get to that understanding the author steps the listener through the Early Greeks, the Hellenic Period, the great Islamic thinkers (and they were great!), and through Thomas Aquinas, and to the start of Modern Science.
I now know in excruciatingly detail the wrong theories from the history of bad science such as the Ptolemaic system, the Aristotelian theory of motion, and Galileo's erroneous theory of tides. That's sort of a problem with this book. It's hard enough to keep today's less false theories about the world straight than it is to try to learn the fine points about the previously more false theories from the past.
The biggest crack in the armor of superstitious thinking and absolute knowledge comes with Thomas Aquinas. He takes the theology of his time and uses the logical principles of Aristotle to support his faith. At first the Pope forbids that approach but then the next Pope commends the approach. Allowing the logic and the reason that Aristotle represents (but not quite allowing for empiricism), allows the West to create a Newton.
The real theme of the book is along these lines: Plato is silly with his complete reliance on absolute knowledge; Aristotle puts science on the right path by categorizing the real world, but mars it with his final causes; Bacon's empiricism is still not relevant since he is striving for absolute knowledge by divorcing the individual from the world; Descartes's methods of thought leads no where, but his science (and math) are quite impressive; Galileo makes incredible strides but still doesn't realize the universe is not made up of mathematics, math is just a tool for understanding. Newton takes Kepler's empirically derived laws, idealizes them and derives them from first principles and shows how they can explain as well as describe.
Science needs to be understood as studying the particular, contingent and probable, and it never proves anything it just makes statements less false and this book helps one understand how we finally got to this point and out of Plato's Cave.