And the winner is...
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.