Scientific feats and column inches

Remarkable Discoveries!
February 10, 1995

Books about science for non-scientists are enjoying a modest boom. While few are read widely enough to justify the tag "popular science" (Hawking always excepted), there is a constant stream of new titles. The effort to promote public understanding of science, renewed ten years ago by the Royal Society and now endorsed by a succession of Government ministers, has helped to ensure science books can win prizes, get more reviews, get noticed.

One result is that there are more kinds of popular science book. True, some old models have died out. There are no real successors to, say, Hogben's Science for the Citizen, billed in its day as a "self-educator" and replete with equations, formulae and trigonometric problems for the reader. We have the rather less forbidding Open University instead. But aside from this, the range is wide.

As the new ecology of popular scientific publishing takes shape, old species flourish alongside novel variants. Frank Ashall's book is one of these older types, hoping for a rejuvenation. Although its origins lie in the new boom, it is a deeply old-fashioned work.

Ashall is a relatively young (mid-thirties) Oxford-trained biochemist who took up popular writing after a media fellowship on the Independent newspaper a few years ago. He has two of the most powerful scientific motivations for promoting such understanding. He "believes fervently that scientists have a duty to inform the public about the wonders of nature and its beneficial applications to society", so the blurb tells us. And every story he tells has the same moral: these benefits come from the unfettered pursuit of basic research by disinterested scientists.

This is true whether he is relating Faraday's elucidation of electromagnetism, the decoding of DNA, or the discovery of the buckminsterfullerenes. During 200 years of research, from, say, Lavoisier to recombinant DNA, the basic tale is the same: amazingly dedicated and inspired individuals achieved extraordinary new insights into nature by dint of hard work and brilliant thinking, and the rest of us have benefited immeasurably ever since.

All those are characteristic Ashall adjectives. But sometimes the feats he records are so heroic that mere description fails him. Take Pasteur, whose achievements "were so numerous and important for human progress that it is truly impossible to give them enough credit in written words".

Not a very well written book then, and an irritating one at that: for example, the insistence on providing metric conversions for every quantity or giving dates for every person named. But it raises interesting questions about what the dominant frames for popular science narratives are going to be.

Just last year Ashall's publishers offered us a popular collection of some studies from the recent history and sociology of science, in Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch's The Golem, which, among other things, tells quite different versions of several of the stories Ashall relates. It is partly The Golem's account of the Michelson-Morley experiment, or the interpretation of Eddington's eclipse observations of 1919, or Pasteur's despatch of the theory of spontaneous generation, that makes this book seem so old-fashioned.

The advent of widely read accounts of science influenced by a more sociologically sophisticated view of scientific practice is deplored by some scientists. It is not just a question of constructivist accounts of knowledge generation, with what some take to be relativist implications, one feels. It is also that researchers in science studies, or journalists for that matter, who offer an honest account of how science gets done, threaten the naive and mostly self-serving self-image of academic science that is inscribed on every page of Ashall's book.

The bad news for those who still see science so rose-tinted is that a rising generation of outside commentators sees things differently. Some are investigative journalists, like the Americans John Crewdson - who has relentlessly pursued the details of Robert Gallo's work on Aids - or Gary Taubes - author of books on cold fusion, and of a splendidly vivid account of Carlo Rubbia's regime at CERN that has never been published in the UK for fear of our libel laws. Some are graduates from new science communication courses like those at Imperial College or Birkbeck College in London, who examine a good deal of science studies-derived material as a way of broadening their perspective on science.

Sometimes this trend has striking results - sociologists of science on The Late Show. More often it is a background influence: you would not know from reading the leading business and news weekly that its science editor is an enthusiast for the works of Bruno Latour. But the influence is undoubtedly there.

The obvious question, then, is whether these various ways of telling stories about science can co-exist, sharing an expanded market for science popularisation. For now, they probably can. Most news stories about research still share the premises Ashall valiantly upholds. And straightforward accounts of the facts of accepted science will endure. Some of them will always include cartoon-style history, such as the booklet on inventors from my seven-year-old's comic, which tells her that Newton started thinking about why things fall when he was staying on his mother's farm and an apple fell on his head.

Ashall's book is some way ahead of this as history, though most of it is based on secondary accounts of the work described. For the newcomer to science for whom it is plainly intended it would do no harm to start here. I wonder, though, how long even such a reader would find the picture painted a satisfying one.

Jon Turney is a Wellcome fellow in the department of history, philosophy and communication of science, University College, London.

Remarkable Discoveries!

Author - Frank Ashall
ISBN - 0521 43317 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 8pp

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