A box full of 'outside the box' thinking

The Science Book
October 26, 2001

On July 5 1996 a very special lamb was born in the small village of Roslin, near Edinburgh." If you are hooked, The Science Book is for you. Modelled on an arm-stretcher of Christmases past, Phaidon Press's The Art Book , this volume offers 250 instances of great scientific discoveries, from counting to Dolly and the human genome, in digestible bites. Each discovery enjoys a few hundred words and a full-page illustration. The contributors are well established, and the picture researchers deserve a sizeable bonus.

Many scientists will find the book annoying for the same reason they despair at much science reporting. It gives little idea of science as a process, where progress builds on progress. But the professionals are not the book's intended audience. It is meant for those who get their fix of science largely from television and for whom a book with no pictures would be too big a step into the unknown; also for schoolchildren still a year or two short of reading the New Scientist . The idea is to persuade these members of the general public that sickle-cell disease or the benzene ring are as engaging as Monet or Matisse. With good reason, the discoverers as well as their discoveries are pushed to the fore. For both groups of readers, the package should be attractive and the dinky box with handle will ease possible back strain.

The discoveries range from those about which everything is known and whose protagonists may still be alive, to some whose dates are dubious and principals unnamed. The earliest occurred in Swaziland, where counting has been dated to about 37,000 years ago on the evidence of a notched baboon fibula. (This is regarded as too dull for a picture, so a Sumerian tablet about 32,000 years younger is shown instead.) After that, it seems, some early brain drain turned science into an exclusively Middle Eastern or Greek activity, judging from the next 11 entries. The action moves on only about AD600, when Brahmagupta thinks up the zero in India - but even this, it turns out, had been invented by an ancient Greek, Ptolemy, and then forgotten.

The book undoubtedly contains considerable riches. One possible bear trap, the inclusion of items that are really technological inventions rather than scientific discoveries, has been avoided, at the cost of omitting the internet, communications satellites, printing, the telephone and even (dubiously) the laser. But then why include Apollo 11 ?

Nevertheless, there are problems. For a start, the book gives no references or clues to further reading. Nobody knows better than the book's editor, Peter Tallack, that we are in a golden age of popular-science publishing, but you would never guess from this volume that other popular-science books are available. Someone who has just read the entry on William Perkin's invention of mauve dye could do with knowing that Simon Garfield has written a book, Mauve , devoted to the subject, and a reader who is intrigued by Nariokotome Boy would enjoy The Wisdom of the Bones , a book on the same fossil by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman that won the United Kingdom's top science book prize.

This omission is one of a number of signs that the book has been hastened out for the Christmas market. Another is that Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, has become Martin Ress at the head of a short essay on cosmology. The editor apologised to Sir Martin for the mistake at the book launch.

Rees's essay, "From Newton to Einstein", is one of a number strewn through the book. It is a quick look at the difference between the world of classical physics and the relativistic universe discovered at the start of the 20th century. An essay by Danny Hillis on Turing machines is another sign, like the recently released film Enigma , of Alan Turing's continuing ability to intrigue. Although Hillis's essay is too brief, as with almost all the essays, it is interesting for its insight that people today find it harder to conceive a Turing machine - an imaginary device capable of performing any calculation and therefore capable (in principle) of imitating the function of the human brain - than to understand a conventional computer with a memory. Other essayists, a strong suit by any standard, include Ian Stewart, Peter Atkins, Richard Leakey, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. (But note that on the left-hand side of the contents page the essayists have to be hunted down by their names alone, while on the right the essay titles appear too.) A key question is what impression the book gives of science as a human activity rather than as a body of knowledge, and here there are more problems. Clearly the editor has chosen what he regards as the 250 high points of the history of science. But most science is not about breakthroughs and turning points - as most journalism does not bring down governments. More irritatingly, the entries are so short that there is no space to make clear the decades of painstaking effort that induces a paradigm shift such as plate tectonics. Copernicus is said to have sorted out the structure of the solar system "at a stroke". Anyone who has read a biography of him knows it took a lifetime of toil.

In addition, the book has no way of recognising that science has its share of errors, failures and missed opportunities. For example, there is an entry on the discovery of Neptune in 1846, and one on Galileo's first use of the telescope in 1610. Neither mentions what this reviewer regards as a staggering event: Galileo's observation of Neptune in 1612 and 1613, when he noted its movement in the sky but failed to follow it.

Still, it is hard to fault the book's breadth. The earth sciences get a fair showing, with discoveries such as continental drift, isotope dating and the interior layers of the earth, although it is hard to argue that the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was much of a turning point for volcanology. Chemistry, which often fails to receive its due in popular-science writing, is also well covered, while under mathematics there are entries for public-key cryptography, the four-colour map problem and, inevitably, Fermat's last theorem. Also praiseworthy is the material from sciences such as anthropology and archaeology, where early humans are a subject of numerous entries.

But some topics, such as Malthus's "discovery" of "population pressure", might not be regarded as science at all. If it is indeed real, it surely belongs in the world of economics and social sciences. If Marx and Keynes are out, Malthus should be too. Another example is the decipherment of the Rosetta stone. Indeed this entry is a prime case in which anyone who knows the subject will think that brevity has damaged the story to a point where it becomes misleading. Moreover, Champollion, credited with the decipherment on page 136, is replaced by Thomas Young, his rival usually thought of as a less vital player, on page 118. There will be quibbles about some of the other discoverers, too. Carl Djerassi may be unimpressed not to be listed as one of the inventors of the contraceptive pill, although he does appear in the text.

These are serious reservations, but on the positive side The Science Book contains a rich variety of material, in a chronological order that invites serendipitous browsing. Superstrings and supernovae, buckminsterfullerene and genetic fingerprinting, the great attractor and the way bumblebees fly - all these, from merely the past few years, will draw readers in and keep them absorbed longer than they intended. And the editor has not been afraid to take on some topics, such as water on the Moon, and Martian microfossils, where the results are not yet certain (although this is not made clear in the lunar-water entry).

In view of its many strengths, it is a pity that in too many places the book is a mess and suffers from a lack of self-confidence. No book should need a preface, a foreword and an introduction. The aim seems to be to allow Susan Greenfield and Simon Singh to have a name check alongside Tallack. But the big names fielded in the book mean that it should sell well. It is to be hoped that the second edition will be much better.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .

The Science Book

Editor - Peter Tallack
ISBN - 0 304 35918 1
Publisher - Cassell
Price - £30.00
Pages - 528

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