We tend to think of science as a future-directed endeavor, but we all have stakes in its past. This is obvious regarding historians of science, like myself, but scientists do it too, and chronically. Every citation in an article is a reconstruction (accurate or not) of its past, and anecdotes and cautionary tales (accurate or not) remain staples of the everyday scientific life. Philosophers of science, too, have sought to extract lessons from the past—most famously Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)—although recently an emphasis on contemporary developments has shifted philosophers, especially philosophers of physics, away from historical hunting grounds.

Eric Scerri's A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science insists that there is much to be gained from returning to history as a source for philosophy. This book consists of a series of concise chapters outlining the biographies and principal intellectual contributions of seven scientists engaged in the question of electron configuration in atomic theory during the first decades of the twentieth century: John Nicholson, Anton Van den Broek, Richard Abegg, Charles Bury, John D. Main Smith, Edmund Stoner, and Charles Janet. (The last is somewhat of an outlier, being principally an innovator in the structure of the periodic table, which isn't quite the same thing as electron configuration.) These are not exactly household names in the textbook-sidebar history that emphasizes Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and H. G. Moseley, among other luminaries. Scerri picks them precisely because they are less well known. Scerri believes that people tend to attribute their achievements to Bohr and Pauli—a persistent leitmotif of the text are barbs hurled especially at Bohr (for example, pp. 29, 84, and 95) for being credited with developments that Scerri argues are primarily Nicholson's or Bury's. (It is hard to see how this is Bohr's fault.)

The repeated emphasis on priority is ironic in two senses. First, one of Scerri's main philosophical points is that science develops by incremental changes with manifold contributions by those who are forgotten by later generations, and therefore that scientists, philosophers, and historians should be substantially less obsessed with credit. Yet his mode of argument consistently manifests a redoubled emphasis on credit, albeit one that is redistributed away from Bohr and Pauli. (Scerri recognizes the tension twice, on p. 142 and in endnote 21 on p. 214.) Following the citation trail shows that every skyscraper was made out of innumerable girders.

This is related to the second irony. Scerri maintains that scientists should be generous in their acknowledgment of the many contributions that have led to their achievements, but he himself is somewhat less so. Many of the citations, especially for historical claims, are to articles or books by Scerri, themselves dependent on legions of historians unnamed here. Scerri laments that historians do not pay attention to his stratum of unacknowledged scientists, but for several decades scholars such as Buhm Soon Park, Ana Simões, Kostas Gavroglu, Michel Janssen, Theodore Arabatzis, and others have addressed the history of electron configuration. I mention them here because I agree with Scerri that more awareness of their past would be beneficial to practicing scientists, and A Tale of Seven Scientists does not provide a clear bibliographic guide.

At the (substantial) risk of seeming pedantic, at many places minor errors work against the force of Scerri's interesting scientific reconstructions. For those who read the book electronically, the occasional vanishing of umlauts in German names or the tendency of J. J. Thomson to become “Thompson” will make some individuals hard to locate. (The index has it right.) More problematic are casual assertions that are not fact-checked. For example, in lamenting Janet's presentation to Anglophone audiences in The Chemical News in 1929, Scerri asserts that the misleading piece was likely written by the editor, William Crookes (p. 165). One can certainly raise eyebrows at Crookes—alongside a stellar scientific career, he was also a devotee of séances and believed he had photographed ghosts—but of this sin he must be innocent, because when the article appeared he had already been dead for a decade. I recognize this is the kind of thing that makes historians less fun at parties, but to my mind it is the same respect for accuracy that Scerri (and all of us) rightly demands of scholarship, including science.

In the end, Scerri's historical claim about recovery of attribution is subordinate to his philosophical claim: that science develops by incremental progress, in very strong analogy to evolution by natural selection, and that an emphasis on “revolutions” is deeply misguided. It is hard to argue with the critique of revolutions: you would be hard pressed to find many historians or philosophers of science of the past two decades who deploy this language. His target here, as hinted at above, is Thomas Kuhn, whose 1962 classic remains a touchstone, though a largely superseded one. Most scholarship on Kuhn—such as that cited by Scerri in his final synthetic chapter—is critical of the revolutionary frame. More surprising to me as a reader of Kuhn is that Scerri's picture of incremental contributions to science is extraordinarily close to Kuhn's arguments about “normal science”—that is, “puzzle-solving” as the day-in, day-out work of most scientists in most periods. This is a view that ought to be congenial to Scerri's own presentation, and yet he does not mention it, nor does he engage the quite similar program of Imre Lakatos. Scerri does situate himself in the context of writings in evolutionary epistemology, and he concedes his view is on the stronger side.

Many parts of the book remain thought-provoking, and will likely be of great interest to certain readers. As he admits more than once (p. 11, 64), his audience is not really historians, since they largely agree with his picture of science. I expect philosophers might remain unpersuaded of the evolutionary picture (that Scerri dubs in the introduction, in analogy to James Lovelock's controversial views, “SciGaia” [pp. 8 and 9], to highlight evolution independent of agency) and would prefer to see a more rigorous defense. The final readership—scientists—seems the right one, and both experts and non-specialists will find the presentation of Nicholson and Stoner's work, as well as of the other five scientists', illuminating. If this book prompts the reader to dig back into old journals and read some fascinating forgotten pioneers of science, it will have served an admirable purpose.

Michael D. Gordin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, where he specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences. He is the author of several books, including A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table (Basic Books, 2004), a biography of the scientist in the context of Imperial Russia and nineteenth-century chemistry, and most recently Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English (Chicago, 2015).