Thursday, September 28, 2006

Art in/of Nature

Isn't this astonishing? It is just one plate from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, (Art Forms in Nature), which is one of Armand Leroi's three nominations for best science book ever for our discussion on Oct 19.
I love this partly because I had not come across it before. So I can only lift the description of one of the English versions (which are mainly about the pictures) which are available:

"Art Forms in Nature" is a glorification of function and form, a demonstration of organic symmetry that has nothing--and everything--to do with nature as it actually exists. Each plate exhibits organisms carefully arranged and exquisitely detailed, "a symbiosis between decorative sketches and descriptive observations of nature," as Olaf Breidbach states in his fascinating introductory text. The radiolarians, medusae, rotifers, bryozoans, and even frogs and turtles lovingly recreated here are gorgeous and self-explanatory, rendered in delicate, filigreed lines, and colored gently with muted green, delicate pink, and sepia. 139 pages, Pb, color images and prints.

If every picture is worth a thousand words, then a book with unadorned text will need to be quite long to outdo this one. You can view lots more pretty pictures here, but you will have to navigate around this rather splendid site in German.

So that's a gap in my education I am glad to fill. Is this book as widely loved as I suspect it is?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Double Helix

Here's the first title from Tim Radford's trio of selections for best science book - Jim Watson's Double Helix.

Must be a candidate in terms of impact, musn't it? The opening sentence is being quoted around the place at the moment in connection with Matt Ridley's excellent new biography of Francis Crick. (OK, I'm assuming it is excellent as I haven't read it, but he spoke very engagingly about Crick in London last week.)

Still lots of questions to ask about Watson's memoir/non-fiction novel, or whatever we decide to call it, after all this time. Does it draw people to science or put them off, for example? Why was it such a success? Why is the sequel so unreadable?

If you've never read the book - a minority of those who read this, I imagine - someone with a name quite like mine seems to have reviewed it briefly here on the Wellcome Trust's genome website. Friedberg's The Writing Life of James D Watson is also q. interesting for background, if you can get hold of it.

Anyhow, it is a good read, and influential. Best science book ever? We'll see.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The main event

These blog things work bottom-up, so here's a reminder of of what started this one at the top, where people actually read stuff.

On October 19 there's an event at Imperial College London where we will vote for the "best science book ever" (see Royal Institution link in the sidebar).

OK, we don't expect the verdict on the night to go down in history. The point is to have the conversation. Examples of what is good, with arguments why, might add up to something. At least, we'll have a list of books to supplement Ian McEwan's science canon.

On the night, we will hear from Tim Radford, Maggie McDonald and Armand Leroi, who will explain why they chose their top three, and argue for their favourite.

They've read lots, but two of them have already got their list down to three titles - and their nominations will be highlighted here. I hope they may add some near misses, too.

Anyone else who wants to mention a particular title, please do - maybe with a few words about why it is worthy, or unworthy. The RI is also polling some of the scientifically inclined literati to see what they think, which ought to be fun.

If we get to 100 titles at some point, I might even feel a book proposal coming on (though nobody wanted to play last time I tried that one).

If we don't the list should certainly remind people about some writers who have fallen beneath the radar since the pop-science publishing boom took off in the '80s. Loren Eiseley, anyone?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Handy guides

Flicking through my copy of A Guide to Science Reading (1st ed, 1957, revised 1964) shows how things have changed for pop-science in fifty years. There were perfectly readable popular books then, though many still dated from the first half of the century. On the other hand, the 900 odd titles listed in this handy guide prepared for the American Association for thr Advancement of Science include a hefty proportion of technical primers which would hardly get a look in now.

Take "Atomic and Nuclear Physics", for example. Pretty important subject in the '50s and '60s. The eager reader might try Bohr, Neils, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, "a collection of articles written by the author on various occasions over a period of 25 years. The general theme of the papers is the lessons in theory of knowledge (epistemology) which have been provided by the modern development of atomic physics".

If that doesn't grab you, try Norman Lansdell, The Atom and the Energy Revolution, (Penguin!), "based on an investigation and report of a management consultant who was commissioned to make a study of the implications of atomic energy". Thrilling stuff, no doubt.

Now we have, probably, thousands of more reader-friendly titles (and Roger Penrose). And to guide the curious to the right ones?

That is harder. Waterstones published a quite lengthy Guide to Popular Science Books in 2000, but they were all good, according to them. The British Council's Hunting Down the Universe: A select science and literature bibliography, also highlights good stuff, as long as it was written by a Brit - which is something of a limitation in this area. Still downloadable, though.

And Brian Clegg's Popular Science website has a growing list of reviews, and only one of his own books gets five stars (along with Armand Leroi, Matt Ridley, and, I fear, Stephen Hawking).

Are there any others?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Brief, briefer, briefest...

One of the comments on the post below asks, has anyone mentioned Hawking? So, should we mention him? Lots of copies sold, but are they good books? And are there reasons to prefer A Brief History of Time (killer title, poorly explained text), Briefer History (which I haven't read) or Universe in a Nutshell, which I recall reviewing unfavourably when it came out - and the wonders of the Guardian archive will still tell you why.

There was another round up of comment on the book from other folks a little later.

I reckon Hawking has been more of an inspiration to other writers - and publishers - to try and crack the market, rather than an example of how to do it.

Hybrid vigour?

Just reading Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (to be reviewed in Physics World), which is a re-working of the lives of Turing and Godel, labelled as a novel. It set me thinking about all the books which fall somewhere in or near popular science which are hybrids, mixing up fiction and non-fiction. They're so varied it's hard to say what else they have in common - from Gamow's Mr Tomkins to Russell Stannard's children's books to Carl Djerassi's "scientifiction" (ugh) in Menachem's Seed or The Bourbaki Gambit.

But the ones worth looking out for, I reckon, mostly turn out to be proper novels, closely based on historical materials :

Alan Lightman - Einstein's dreams (OK, not a novel)
Clare Dudman - Wegener's Jigsaw (see my review from 2003 here)
John Banville - Dr Copernicus, and Kepler
Harry Thompson - This Thing of Darkness (about Fitzroy and the Beagle)
Russell McCormach - Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist

any more...?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

deja vu (again)

Another level of déjà vu re Dawkins comes from the conclusion to Martin Amis’s controversial dissection of “horrorism” in the previous week’s Observer. As usual of late, Amis over-reaches himself striving for significance, but he is modest enough to close with a quote which is the most memorable bit of the piece.

We should be with Joseph Conrad, he says:

'The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is - marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.

'Whatever my native modesty may be it will never condescend to seek help for my imagination within those vain imaginings common to all ages and that in themselves are enough to fill all lovers of mankind with unutterable sadness.' ('Author's Note' to The Shadow-Line, 1920.)

A pretty succinct summary of Richard Dawkins’ position, no?

God and deja vu

One way to narrow the choice of the best books may be to rule some categories. Maybe one good candidate for exclusion would be pop-science books about God.

There are lots, and they helped to fuel the popular science publishing boom. They faded away for a bit, but seem to be making a partial come-back. Partial because the lengthy piece which just ran in the London Observer prompts serious feelings of déjà vu.

It hangs on the fact that both Richard Dawkins and Paul Davies have new books on the meaning of life. Haven’t read either, but their summary contents are pretty much what they've been writing for the last twenty years. I recall writing a column comparing their views – biology sanctions atheism but cosmology makes it seem as if, somehow we are meant to be here – almost that long ago.

Hard to believe that either of the new offerings will be a book to compare with their authors’ best. Striving for answers to questions like this tends to be unconvincing to any but the already converted.

Instead, I prescribe a dose of metaphysical minimalism for popular science. Something like this:

There is something rather than nothing.

Some of the stuff which exists appears to
become the kind of stuff which can do things.

We have no real idea whether we are equipped to work out what any stuff ultimately is, or the meaning of the things it can do.

We can have a mildly entertaining time trying, though, and there are grounds for supposing we have made some progress. We may possibly be less wrong than we used to be, in some areas.

There’s no particular reason to believe anything else anyone tells you about the nature of the universe which is formulated as a general, and universally or eternally true statement.

It is always tempting to try and make such statements, but it is tricky spotting the really dangerous ones before they do harm, so the sport is best avoided for most people.

As well as avoiding all kinds of silliness, I reckon this creed has the advantage that dragging it out to book length would never sell - so it would encourage people to write about something else.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

scientists' self-portraits

Interesting piece in The New Atlantis about scientists' memoirs by Christine Rosen. Peter Medawar said Watson's Double Helix (of which more anon) invented the genre of scientific memoir. Rosen goes back a lot further - Priestley, Darwin and Max Planck. She also quotes Medawar, intriguingly, in support of her claim about the importance of memoir. OK, the doing of science is often dull, but "in another sense memoir is a good fit for scientists, since their work is, in some ways, about constructing narratives. As ... Medawar observed, the work of scientists is 'building explanatory structures, telling stories which are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life.'"

I like that. It would be interesting to take it beyond Watson, though, where she stops. Try Kary Mullis, Robert Sapolsky, John Sulston, Francis Crick, just among the biologists...

Monday, September 11, 2006

deja vu?

Great, now I discover someone has done this before! There's a lengthy blog-based discussion of the best pop-science book ever on the astrophysicists' blog at Cosmic Variance blog - ran from mid 2005 into 2006 but now closed.

Actually it's great. Another chance to compare lists, though a pretty scientific bunch of commentators, and leaning toward physics and maths. There's no final conclusion, though, and not much discussion of actual criteria - except the suggestion that Penrose's Roads to Reality isn't really a popular science book. I agree. Do you know anyone without Master's level physics who has read it?

Read the whole thing in the archive