REVIEW: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-921680-2. A PDF copy of this review is available here.
During the Christmas holidays last year, my mother and I were visiting a bookshop, and we passed by a display of general-audience science books. As a child, I had devoured such things, and propelled by sentiment mixed with curiosity, I looked over the titles, browsing for ones which I’d seen recommended or were written by authors I knew. Momentarily, however, a harsh edge cut through my sentimental reverie. “Look at this,” I said. “This book props up its thesis with phony numbers and citations which point to papers that don’t even discuss what the book says they do! And this one, here, tells a version of 1990s physics history which, to put it mildly, doesn’t match up with what other physicists remember. Oh, and this author, well, everybody is just astonished at how the clarity of his thinking implodes halfway through, when he stops thinking and starts faith-ing. And what’s this — quantum healing?”
If the Gentle Reader were to deduce a “moral” from the story, it might be that I am a cantankerous individual with an acerbic disposition, and the reader would not be gravely in error. Beyond that, one could say that a science education nearly killed the general-interest bookshelf for me, and what University did not do, the science-blogging world definitely tried to finish. Caught up in this electronic tangle of opinions, discoveries and arguments, where new findings and reactions to them are all free for the taking, I’d seen the flaws of a great many books exposed. Precisely because online science writing makes irascible iconoclasm a way of life, though, it teaches the joy of discourse and the admiration of written words which, finally, work. Both of these aspects play into the value of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins.
This book collects passages written by seventy-nine scientists over the previous hundred years; though Dawkins himself has more than proven his talents as an expositor, his own writings are confined to introductory remarks giving context for each selection. Biology is represented quite strongly, and physics makes a good showing. Astronomy, other than the cosmological variety, makes mostly cameo appearances, and chemistry seems rather the poor stepchild. (Max Perutz, a Nobel Laureate, contributes a bit on X-ray crystallography which is largely an admiring biographical sketch of fellow laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, and the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks is roped in to give a quirky reminiscence about tungsten! Primo Levi‘s tale of a carbon atom, though, is not to be missed.) Truly commendable is Dawkins’s inclusion of mathematics, a subject which provokes an unnatural fear even in literate readers who appreciate science and enjoy reading about the latest fossil or the most newly discovered extra-solar planet. The selections chosen for The Oxford Book are clear, memorable and not infrequently poetic. Upon occasion, they deliver on that great promise of science education: to provoke the learner into seeing the natural world and the products of the human mind in a new and unforgettable light. After reading what Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Charles Darwin‘s take on the humble earthworm, for example, it is difficult to see in the same way such a simple thing as worms coming out on a pavement after the rain.
The Oxford Book would serve as an excellent smÃ¶rgÃ¥sbord of introductions for the reader who has grown interested in science but doesn’t know where to begin. Likewise, those who catch the biggest headlines and read about the flashiest new breakthroughs will likely benefit from a book about science which has stood the test of time, about discoveries which have kept on inducing breathlessness for several decades. A specialist trained in one scientific field could also enjoy an interlude of lateral thought, poking into a new domain of learning to flex the thought-muscles.
When I’ve heard people talk about a movie or a book being “an unalloyed pleasure,” they mean it to be joy without stopping, all good and nothing bad. Given that an alloy is a mixture of metals, the phrase also carries a trace contamination of the idea that the book or the movie being talked about only offers one kind of goodness — all drama and no comedy, let’s say. Consequently, I find myself describing The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing as an alloyed pleasure, a mixture of different satisfactions, in unequal amounts. The amazing facts, the flashes of wit, the moments of rapturous wonder are all there to be had, but Dawkins has also provided a series of portals to debate. I’m not talking about a nasty kind of political infighting, with accusations and character assassination, but rather the academic version of the same process: the rolling up of sleeves, the setting down of the teacup and the declaration of intellectual combat.
The book club meetings for this volume can, and should, be. . . volatile places.
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