Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Mailer unbound

Blimey, Norman Mailer is annoying. At least he was in 1970. For all I know he is now a sweet old man (though I somehow doubt it). But his writing in A Fire on the Moon is wonderfully frustrating. Such a collection of reportorial virtues; such interesting things to say; such an odd result.

It begins weirdly enough, with a first chapter hilariously entitled A Loss of Ego (let us assume he intended the joke to be on him) which presents the author in the third person, in two different guises. That said, there is some terrific reporting, and a beautifully clear impression - unusual at the time - of the Apollo programme as a great adventure which is marred by being in the hands of people who can only communicate in NASAspeak.

But whatever "Norman", or "Aquarius" (!) says is quickly drained of interest by being so consistently overwritten.

Favourite example so far. On p146 he is trying to pin down the difference between physics and engineering. He fires off a whole string of attempts, of which one is:
"Phyics was the quiet remark, 'Give an object an escape velocityof 36,000 feet per second and it will be able to leave the gravitational field of the earth'. Engineering was the fifty years of rockets digging furrows in cornfields and catching fire on the pad from leaky valves".

That's great. But then there is a needless elaboration of the same point. Then there's a further lengthy contemplation of physics and chemistry as partners in a marriage arranged by a computer, with an amazingly drawn out meditation, with dialogue, on how to arrange for the two partners to have sex in spite of a mutual lack of attraction... All this takes a whole page more, by which time the force of the remark where he actually nailed what he needed to say is not so much lost as dissipated forever. Overwritten, in fact, falls far short of the effect.

This, alas, is not a moment's abberation but typical of what I suppose we have to call Mailer's style. The result is a book full of readable things but which for me is ultimately unreadable, in spite of its advocates' urging.

Now if one could put these things into a database and run through a do-it-yourself edit, who knows what great books might be hewn from the sedimentary layers of Mailer's prose here? But life is too short...

Monday, October 23, 2006


Someone said poetry is memorable speech. Prof. Carey, in What Good are the Arts? defines literature as "writing that I want to remember - not for its content alone, as one might want to remember a computer manual, but for itself: those particular words in that particular order."

Which nicely subjective line explains why there is a literature of science...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some good writing

Now for some unalloyed subjectivity. Sara Abdulla reckons most pop science badly written. I tend to agree. Maybe it is fairer to say that most science writers rarely do better than functional, workmanlike (non-sexist alternative?) prose - me included. I wonder how much this matters (certainly to the readers of popular science), and will say why one day. But there are some mainstream popular science books which are memorable because of the quality of the writing - because the author can occasionally make words work on the page in a way which gives pleasure to a reader who likes that sort of thing. Now there's an evasive definition for you.

Ten of the above (in no particular order):

Jonathan Weiner - The Beak of the Finch
E. O. Wilson - The Diversity of Life
George Johnson - Strange Beauty
Timothy Ferris - Coming of Age in the Milky Way
Marek Kohn - A Reason for Everything
Oliver Morton - Mapping Mars
Rachel Carson - The Sea Around Us
Loren Eiseley - The Firmament of Time
John McPhee - Basin and Range
Diane Ackerman - A Natural History of the Senses

It would be quite easy to double this list, and not just by adding another book from each of these authors. After that, I think it would get harder.

Norman Mailer is annnoying me, and is relevant because I want to note why his book is NOT well-written. It is partly because he was clearly way too grand by 1969 to be edited. But no time now to go into that...

Friday, October 20, 2006

And the winner is...

Just for the record, Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table took the vote for best science book at the RI event last night.

It was a nice conversation, and further thoughts will keep this blog going for a while – this kind of thinking aloud being mildly addictive.

For now, consider: three panelists who knew a lot about science writing, and about other kinds of writing – Tim Radford, Armand Leroi, Sara Abdulla. (Sara runs Macmillan’s popular science list and stepped in at the last minute – thanks!). They chose great books. But all, for one reason or another, shied away from the mainstream of recent popular science writing. They mostly said this was because good books transcend this kind of categorization. True in a way. But I think it also means we still find it hard to say why one book in the mainstream is better than another. Is Fortey vs Dawkins, Pinker vs. Ridley, Weinberg vs Hawking, Davies vs Barrow, just a matter of taste? Or can we say such books are good of their kind, with reasons? I still want to try it…

Still, the books up for discussion this time (first choices first) were:
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Norman Mailer – A Fire on the Moon
James Watson – The Double Helix (Tim)

Konrad Lorenz – King Solomon’s Ring
Ernst Haeckel – Kunstformen der Natur
Peter Medawar – Pluto’s Republic (Armand)

Tom Stoppard – Arcadia
Bertolt Brecht – The Life of Galileo
Jonathan Lethem – As She Climbed Across the Table (Sara)

We threw in The Selfish Gene – mentioned several times as a standout title - as a fourth contender for the vote. There were quite a few votes for Medawar and Dawkins, but Primo Levi came out ahead.

Why? Various criteria came up.
A great science book should:
Have a Big Idea
Tell something of the doing of science
Have high literary quality – obviously a big consideration for these judges
Be one you can love (even if some hate it)
And, as Tim put it, it should have passages which “pinion my awareness to the solidity of the world around me”.

Not sure about the first, although maybe Levi’s much anthologized final chapter Carbon qualifies. That seems to be top of many people’s list of best bits of “science writing” (though I have come across people who find it too stylized for their taste) Anyhow, his book seemed to come closest to ticking every one of these boxes.

It’s a hard choice to argue with, but of course the book is inimitable, and quite unlike the general run of popular science. All the better for that, perhaps. Someone who obviously cared a lot about science books mentioned Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten as another worthy title which is kind of about chemistry – though I found it by some distance his worst book. But that still leaves the question of how to sift through the current mass of pop-science books. Asked to recommend just one for a beginning reader, the panel weren’t at all keen on naming names.

Will these criteria help? We’ll see. I feel a few lists coming on… starting with literary quality, partly because Sara reckons most run of the mill popular science books are appallingly written. So next post will be some that aren’t, just to remind myself they do exist.

Meantime, like the Origin of Species, the final paragraph of The Periodic Table, (and of Carbon) is one of the most poetic: "It" is a single atom of carbon, making its way in the world, and into Levi's brain...

It is again among us, in a glass of milk. It is inserted in a very complex, long chain, yet such that almost all of its links are acceptable to the human body. It is swallowed; and since every living structure harbors a savage distrust toward every contribution of any material of living origin, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected. One, the one that concerns us, crosses the intestinal threshold and enters the bloodstream: it migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters, and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two level of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.

Dunno about the copyright, but if you can't lay hands on the Penguin classic the whole chapter can be found here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Time for the verdict

... on the best science book ever. Or at any rate the best one on Thursday evening, Oct 19th.

Our (that is the RI and the science communication lot at Imperial College) event is almost upon us. If you come along, you can vote for the top science book. The core list is:

Primo Levi - The Periodic Table
Norman Mailer - A Fire on the Moon
Jim Watson - The Double Helix
Ernst Haeckel - Kunstformen der Natur
Konrad Lorenz - King Solomon's Ring
Peter Medawar - Pluto's Republic

There will be three more titles from the panel, but you won't find out what these are until the night. And we'll try and find a way of letting the audience vote in at least one more for the final run-off.

It is in the Alexander Fleming Lecture Theatre at IC, starting at 6.30, finishing at 8.00. I shall be in the chair (only a minor disincentive I hope), so shall remain strictly neutral - though some further opinions may appear here afterwards.

Oh, and you can hear some discussion on Material World (with Sue Nelson this week) on Radio 4 that afternoon, also (at around the same time) on the book panel on Radio 5 Live, broadcasting from the science museum. And I'm told there's a Guardian science podcast too, though I haven't checked it out. So we already have the most attention to science books there's been for a while, I'd say.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mulling over Medawar

Speaking of essayists, Peter Medawar was as elegant a scientific essayist as you could find from the 1950s through to 1970s. Patrician, never less than confident in his own judgment, he made the reader feel that intellectual standards mattered, and you had better be pretty alert to match up to his.

His Pluto’s Republic, first published in 1982, is a collection of these essays, some major, some minor – and Armand Leroi’s third selection as a candidate for best science book ever. It ranges widely, from cancer and psychoanalysis to Teilhard de Chardin and IQ. The recurring theme, as Medawar describes it, is the question: “what is science, what kind of person is a scientist, and what kind of act of reasoning leads to scientific discovery and the enlargement of the understanding?”

The core of the answer lies in the piece reprinted from the 1960s, on Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought. Here he declares his allegiance to Karl Popper, the scientist’s favourite philosopher of science. Interesting, I think, that he points out a couple of times that there had been no real studies of what scientists actually do – as opposed to what they are supposed to do. Well, there have now…

The book also contains Medawar’s sympathetic review of another on our list, The Double Helix. How’s this for a provocation?

“It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English Schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of outstanding ability – much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Jim Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something to be clever about.”

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Remembering Lewis Thomas (long post)

Some of us do. Talking to Anil Ananthaswamy of New Scientist last week, we agreed that it's not right no-one has mentioned the Lewis Thomas yet in the lists for top science book. One of the great humane essayists of the last decades of the 20thC, he's been one my my heroes since I discovered him in the late 1970s (slightly earlier than Anil...). I think of him now as one of the heirs of Loren Eiseley. Both are now fading into that posthumous literary limbo which awaits most of us.

To remind others what Thomas was about, here's a piece Anil composed when he was a science writing student at UC, Santa Cruz, which he says is amateurish. I think we should all have such students...

I've omitted some words at the beginning. Thomas, who died in 1993, was a bright boy who became a prominent doctor. Then... over to Anil:

Somewhere in the midst of this illustrious career, Thomas turned into an essayist. In 1970, he gave the keynote address for a symposium on "Inflammation." Since such conferences were usually heavy going, his talk "was designed to lighten proceedings at the outset by presenting a rather skewed view of inflammation." Several months after the conference, a pamphlet-sized reproduction of his talk was circulated to the participants. Soon, Franz Ingelfinger, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, called Thomas. Ingelfinger had liked the piece, and wanted Thomas to write essays for the Journal. He was to write one essay each month, due on Thursday of the third week, no longer than one Journal page in length, on any topic of his liking. He would not be paid, but in return, Ingelfinger promised Thomas that no one would edit his piece.
Ingelfinger had been Thomas’ senior at the City Hospital internship, and Thomas had been accustomed to taking orders from him. "Our relationship began, and continued, with him giving orders and me carrying them out," wrote Thomas. So, when Ingelfinger asked for the essays, "I could not say no," said Thomas.
But Thomas, his "Good bad verse" aside, had only written scientific papers — about two hundred of them, in the "relentlessly flat style required for absolute unambiguity in every word." The essay gave him a chance to flex his prose mus¬cles. He started in earnest: outlining ideas, listing items to cover in each piece, organizing thoughts in orderly sequences, and writing "several dreadful essays which I could not bring myself to reread."
He gave up organization, eschewed method, and held fast till the deadline passed. Then, on the weekend, two days after the deadline, late at night, he wrote without outline or planning, as fast as he could. His first essay was called "Lives of a Cell."
This seminal essay, and others, appeared monthly in the Journal. Soon, Thomas received a letter from Joyce Carol Oates, whom he had never met, advis¬ing him to collect the essays for a book. Book publishers and agents followed with similar advice, but all wanted him to rewrite and add pieces to make a coherent book. Thomas declined: he had no time. Then, Elisabeth Sifton, an editor at The Viking Press, offered to publish the essays — no rewrites, no new pieces. Thomas said yes over the phone, and the book was published. Titled "The Lives of a Cell — Notes of a Biology Watcher," it became a best-seller, and won the National Book Award.
Thomas went on to write other highly acclaimed books: "The Medusa and the Snail — More Notes of a Biology Watcher," "The Youngest Science — Notes of a Medicine Watcher," "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony," "Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher," and "The Fragile Species."
Thomas wrote his books in longhand. "I had a word processor once," said Thomas in an interview with the Washington Post. "When I had more or less mastered it, we had a chimney fire. I found the word processor melted to the table on which it had been placed. It looked like a piece of found art, and then I decided to go back to longhand."
Maybe because of the longhand, or the unfettered writing late at night, past deadline, Thomas’ essays are like extended musings, and flights of fancy, mostly centered on biology and humanity. The details are keenly observed, the prose is lucid for most part (for he was as much a lover of language, as he was of the bio¬logical world), the tone is warm, modest, confident, and optimistic, like a scholarly conversation with a kindly, erudite man, which he was.
His essays, which mostly stuck to the 1,200 word limit (dictated by the size of a page in the Journal), are elegant. Using biology as a cornerstone, Thomas mused about our species, it’s past and future. One of his major themes was how lit¬tle we know about the world we live in. He constantly wrote about symbiosis, in various guises, an exploration of the intricate partnerships that exist around us. The medusa (a jellyfish) and the snail (a sea slug) formed the basis of one such essay, in which he explored their bizarre and unique relationship. He argued that altruism was better than selfishness, that, in nature, the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts.
Music was important to him, a reminder of our accomplishments as a species. So was language. He was an amateur philologist, in love with words."Every word, no exceptions, is an enchantment, a wonder, a marvel," he wrote. In his book, Et Cetera, Et Cetera, he explored this fascination.
Some evolutionary biologists criticized him for suggesting that the earth’s body represents a kind of organism, a theme that kept cropping up in many of his essays. The Earth, to Thomas, resembled an enormous embryo, still developing toward its yet unknown future.
He was enamored by the idea that we are here by chance, a freak of nature. "Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of sur¬prise," he wrote.
Toward the end of his writing career Thomas shifted themes: AIDS, drug abuse, aging, and a concern for our planet. But he maintained his optimism, albeit cautiously: "I have a high regard for our species, for all its newness and immaturity as a member of the biosphere. As evolutionary time is measured, we have arrived here a few moments ago and we have a lot of growing up to do. If we succeed, we could become a sort of collective mind for the earth, the thought of the earth," he wrote. "I trust us to have the will to keep going, and to maintain as best we can the life of the planet."
Encouraging words from a splendid specimen of the species, a man dedi¬cated to the health of individuals, but never forgetting to exhort us to look beyond ourselves, at the larger picture.

A footnote. Maybe the fixed word length is a good way to get memorable results? It brings to mind one of Thomas's peers as an essayist, Miroslav Holub, great poet and pretty respectable immunologist, who wrote a newspaper colummn of 43 lines. Collected in The Jingle Bell Principle (Bloodaxe, 1992), they are a great delight. (Current Amazon sales rank: 1,592,147). The essays in the better-known The Dimension of the Present Moment (Faber, 1990) are slightly longer, but the subject matter more scientific. I'll post a bit of Holub another time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Archbishops and others

Another stage in the world-wide media build-up to the event on Thursday next... (bold/italics added)

Scientists, writers and the Archbishop of Canterbury reveal their favourite science books

A survey released today reveals the top science books of prominent scientists and public figures. In the survey the Royal Institution and the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London asked scientists from many disciplines, as well as authors and other notable people, to name their favourite science book and why they like it.

Unsurprisingly, books that tackle deep ideas like evolution, quantum physics and the secrets of the mind scored highly. The Archbishop of Canterbury favoured A Leg to Stand On by Oliver Sacks, the New York-based neurologist made famous in the film Awakenings. Rowan Williams said that the book, about Sacks’ recovery from a severe accident, ‘challenges all sorts of assumptions about mind and body’.

Susan Greenfield’s favourite science book was How to Build a Time Machine, a book about quantum physics by Australia-based physicist Paul Davies. Baroness Greenfield, the Director of the Royal Institution, said the book ‘looks easy – like a picture book – but introduces you to lots of difficult concepts’.

Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was cited by psychologist Susan Blackmore for its ‘simplicity and power’, and by science writer Matt Ridley, who remembered reading the book for the first time as an undergraduate. He said, ‘Until now, my teachers had helpfully divided the world into right or wrong ideas. But here, I suddenly realised, I was going to have to make up my own mind’.

As much as some choices were about ideas, others were made for inspiration and pure enjoyment. Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford University, chose A Mathematician’s Apology by G H Hardy, which he first read when he was in school. ‘It was like hearing real music for the first time after practising scales and arpeggios for years,’ he said. ‘Being exposed to the power of this logical language to prove things with 100% certainty was very empowering to an adolescent whose world was constantly shifting.’

Another childhood favourite was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Mark Miodownik, an engineer from King’s College London, said ‘I found the book so much funnier and cleverer than any other book I had read that I wore my dressing gown to school for a week’.

One book was enthusiastically cited for being both great science and a great read: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. Geneticist Steve Jones said it has ‘more adventures on a single page than most modern writers manage to squeeze into a chapter, or an entire book’. Science writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry has had to replace her much-loved copy of The Voyage of the Beagle three times. She said, ‘It works as a terrific travel book, as a riveting insight into the scientific journey of one of the world’s great scientists and as a great read. What more could you want?’


1. The complete list of responses to the survey can be found on the Royal Institution’s website, HERE
2. The survey was conducted to coincide with a public event at Imperial College London, ‘The best science books ever’. Three writers will each put forward their choice for the best science book, and the audience will vote on the one they think should win. Tickets are available to the public by calling the Royal Institution on 020 7409 2992 or going to www.rigb.org. Press tickets are available by calling the same number.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The main event - reminder

Time for another top of the page reminder that this blog links with an event on October 19 at Imperial College London where we will vote for the "best science book ever" (see Royal Institution link in the sidebar).

It won't be the final word - 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 (see earlier post).

Anyone who wants to mention a particular title not so far highlighted here, please do - maybe with a few words about why it is worthy, or unworthy. I've had conversations about Lewis Thomas, for instance (remember The Lives of a Cell, or The Medusa and the Snail? ), but no-one has mentioned him here yet. The RI is also polling some of the scientifically inclined literati to see what they think, which ought to be fun. More on that soon.

At some point, I'll put up a list of everything which gets mentioned. Maybe a top 50. If we get to 100 titles, I might even feel a book proposal coming on (though nobody wanted to play last time I tried that one).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Fire on the Moon

Hard to think of any two men less alike than Neil Armstrong and Norman Mailer (or Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin -left- for that matter).
Mailer's A Fire on the Moon, 1971 is the second of Tim Radford's choices for best science book highlighted here. Another one I've never read, dammit. I'm claiming I was too young. But I know of it as an example of New Journalism, Mailer style. That is, it is as much about Norman as about the Apollo programme. He was, according to a recent aside in the New Yorker,
"the only important American writer aside from John Updike to find the lunar voyage worthy of sustained attention".

It is also, evidently, less... well, starry-eyed about the whole thing than you were supposed to be at the time. Mailer was allergic to NASA's corporate techno-bureaucratic culture, which is obviously to a person's credit, however astronomical their writerly ego. There's a penetrating recent review of it from Spiked Online.
An interesting one to re-evaluate post Challenger, post space station, and in the light of books like Marina Benjamin's Rocket Dreams, on the demise of the space age, or Andrew Smith's Moondust, chronicling his search for the survivors from Apollo - which is noticeably indebted to J. G Ballard, always a Good Thing, and I suspect is the best written of the lot.

So, does the earlier offering wear as well as Tim thinks it does?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

King Solomon's Ring

Can't find a larger image, but this is one of the more pleasing cover designs from many editions of Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring, first published in German in '49, in English from 1951 - most recent edition is a Routledge Classics paperback.
This is another nomination from Armand Leroi, the best-known work by the one of the more intriguing authors one could choose - the Viennese goose lover, ethologist, joint Nobel Laureate with Tinbergen in '73, theorist of animal domestication and racial decline. You can read a capsule biography of Lorenz here.

The book is a brilliant series of essays on animal behaviour, has immense charm and conveying several concepts still important in the field. One the other hand, there's a well-documented essay which gives a view of the book informed by Lorenz's well-elaborated commitment to Nazism here.

So a man whose career remains controversial - he undoubtedly had some odd ideas about wolves, but his geese loved him...