The cover of the popular science book The Glass Bathyscaphe (Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin) shows a picture of Alexander The Great in what looks like a big bottle under the sea tied to a teeny, tiny boat. It is a striking image which promises much – as does the subtitle : How Glass Changed The World. The book does tell in a pretty succinct manner why the authors think the invention of glass, in particular window glass, was so important. However the promise of the cover is never reached. For one, the image is never discussed, nor is any kind of bathyscaphe or submersible glass vehicle. Just think, a bloke, in a bottle , under the sea!!!!

(It strikes me that a classic version of the old fruit in a bottle trick could be done with a human. If a baby is placed in a bottle at a young age and then fed through the top, you could do a real version of the old contorsionist classic when it grew up. Possibly a bit cruel.)

Anyway the argument developed in this pretty big print two hundred page “history” is that without glass there would be no science. Some of the argument is obvious, without glass we would have no lenses and hence no telescopes. But the book goes a little nuts when it runs down the list of the twenty most important experiments ever, proudly explaining how glass was implicated in seventeen of them. Well, I remember the conical flasks and those whirly distillation tubes in Frankenstein were made of glass and that must of been a pretty important experiment.

The problem with the book is that it spends too much time self loathing because of its obvious ideas. The suggestion is that workable, see-through glass was absolutely necessary for the renaissance to happen, and it makes pretty good case. But then it feels guilty for calling all those other great cultures around the world that didn’t have the renaissance thick. But then it says that, well they were a bit thick – all they ever used glass for was vases. Nowhere illustrates this better than the chapter on spectacle use in China and Japan.

This chapter is a mish-mash of half arsed speculation and prejudice. The authors first note the large incidence of myopia in the China and Japan. It then attempts to implicate the use of paper for windows for people squinting more. But there is more. Because they did not have the camera obscura, they never developed representational art. Instead they developed symbolic art which was refined in the importance on calligraphy. Which required more close study. And they didn’t have corrective lenses. And it might be genetic, but that hasn’t anything strictly to do with glass. Except maybe they were genetically too thick to develop glass…

In the end the authors are stuck between saying the obvious and developing ludicrous hypotheticals (which are not even as entertaining as Alexander The Great in a bottle). What it boils down to is “Glass is see through and inert. How useful”. Glass may have changed the world, this book won’t.