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LITERARY REVIEW March 2011

BIOGRAPHY

the courage of his convictions. He persuaded (if that is not too gentle a word) Caroline to give up a potential singing career for long, cold nights at the telescope. At first she recorded observations as he dictated them to her. She then turned herself into an accomplished observer in her own right, discovering no fewer than eight comets. William married a rich widow, and his son, John, received a good education and wanted for nothing. He grew up to be the kind of man who could have turned his hand to anything, graduating from Cambridge in 1813 as Senior Wrangler in mathematics, f ancying a career as a lawyer; but like Caroline his career was decided for him. By then William, who had been born in 1738, was too old for the rigours of observing and it became John’s duty to continue his father’s work. Selling his law books for six pounds, in 1816 he became William’s apprentice. William’s convictions were not always entirely sound. He firmly believed that every astronomical body, including the sun and stars, was inhabited by intelligent beings. But perhaps this can be excused as an eccentricity when set alongside his great body of astronomical work, which grew to become a catalogue of the northern skies, listing nebulae (many now known to be galaxies like our own Milky Way), clusters, and double stars. He even speculated that some of these nebulae, such as the one in the constellation of Andromeda, ‘may well outvie our milky-way in grandeur’. It was only in the 1920s that obser vations by the Amer i can a s t ronomer Edwin Hubble proved this conjecture correct.

John’s great achievement was to extend his father’s work into the southern hemisphere, spending years at the Cape (in modern South Africa) and eventually completing a survey of the southern skies just as his father had surveyed the northern skies. He thus became the first and only astronomer to observe the entire celestial globe personally, using a large telescope.

Astonishingly, Caroline was still alive, at the age of ninety-seven, when the project was completed. She received the news a few months before she died on 9 January 1848.

A great deal of what we know about the Herschels actually comes from Caroline, who in her nineties wrote out instalments of what amounted to an autobiography to send to John and his family. Hoskin makes excellent use of this and other source mater ial, br ing ing the Herschels to life against the background of late eight e enth- and e a r l y n i neteenth-centur y s oc i e t y i n England. William’s success was in no small measure due to his unrivalled skill as a telescope maker, which he used not only for his own observational benefit but to gain favour with royalty, providing instruments with which they could entertain and amaze their visitors.

This is an elegant and enjoyable book that will delight equally readers who have no background in astronomy and those who think they already know about the Herschels. To order this book for £16.95, see LR bookshop opposite HISTORY

FRANK DIKÖTTER

OUR KILLER APPLICATIONS

CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST



By Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 402pp £25)

the World. And just in case the reader was unsure about his message, the subtitle banished all doubt: ‘The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World’. More recently, the archaeologist, classicist and historian Ian Morris, in a hefty tome entitled Why the West Rules – For Now, squarely placed China at the centre of his book, exploring the ebbing of Western power to the East, from the African gene pool hundreds of thousands of years ago to a post-biological future fifty years from now.

ON 4 OCTOBER 1957 a shiny steel sphere the size of a beach ball hurtled through the sky, emitting signals picked up by radio operators around the world. Taking the United States completely by surprise, the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first earth satellite, opening a new chapter in the space race that was met with both awe and fear. A month later Nikita Khrushchev promised that, by freeing the economy from the dead hand of Stalinism, he would create such abundance that even the United States would be left in the dust. The claims now seem extravagant, but at the time the spectre of a rising Soviet Union seemed real enough. In the mid-1970s American visitors walking through the major cities of Siberia were taken aback by downtowns that were made to appear every bit as modern as their counterparts back home.

Yet by the time the Soviet Union came crashing down a decade or so later, the perceived threat to the West had already been transposed to the East. Glittering Japan was the future. Bankers predicted that a r ising empire of the sun would soon supplant the United States as the world’s l eading economy. Distinguished academics such as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wondered whether Japan had a different model from the West, its citizens cells of an organic whole that stifled open dissent. On a more popular level, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun imagined a ruthless corporate world headquartered in Tokyo taking over American industries. By the time the book was published in 1992, Japan had already fallen into a decade of slump. Niall Ferguson is not quite sure when and where he was hit by the realisation that we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy, but he believes it may have been dur ing his f ir st walk along the Bund in Shanghai in 2005, dazzled by modern skyscrapers far taller than the erstwhile symbols of Western hegemony. He is not alone in his conviction that a rising China is about to best the West. A few years ago, the British journalist Martin Jacques confidently published When China Rules

Civilization: The West and the Rest is a big book, but one that is mercifully confined to the last 500 years rather than the full fifteen millennia of human history examined by Morris. The key question it addresses is why a few small communities clustered around the western end of the Eurasian landmass have come to dominate the world – and whether they can maintain their lead. Ferguson is not the first to probe into the reasons for the rise of the West, but he does so in a thoughtful and engaging manner, helped by a lucid style and flashes of humour that will appeal to the lay reader. He draws on a broad range of scholarship,

managing to breathe new life into a whole series of ongoing debates, from the origins of the Industr ial Revolution to the nature of imperialism.

Bowing to reality

He also strikes the right tone, steering clear of the triumphali sm of some of the earl i er accounts of the rise of the West, and never shying away f rom confronting some of the horrors perpetrated in the name of civilisation, including the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid and the Holocaust. The very notion of a civilising mission, as he points out, found i t s most extreme expression in the geno-

cide of the Herero and the Nama in German South-West Africa. But Ferguson also avoids the other extreme, one which has become fashionable over the past few decades, namely a relativist approach that attacks the very notion of the rise of the West. The sinologist Kenneth Pomeranz, for one, went to great lengths in The Great Divergence to argue that there was nothing exceptional in Europe when compared to China, except that coal deposits were easier to mine in Britain, a fact which came to determine the shape of the modern world as we know it.

Rather than reducing the broad sweep of human history to a single variable, Ferguson captures the extraordinary complexity of the last 500 years by proposing six innovations which distinguished the West from the Rest. Borrowing from the language of today’s computerised world, he calls them ‘killer applications’: competition, science, property r ights, medicine, consumer society,

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LITERARY REVIEW March 2011