Woolly tales and sightings of Uranus

The Faber Book of Science
December 22, 1995

Science now occupies a hefty piece of shelf space in any reasonable bookshop: genetics, the environment, intelligence and even some pretty difficult stuff at the junction of cosmology, physics, religion and philosophy all seem to justify house room alongside cookbooks, novels and books on the royals.

Despite these riches, this book is the one that will force itself on to the Christmas shopping list for anyone with scientists - or folk with an interest in science - to buy for. Its editor, John Carey, professor of English literature at Oxford, must have undergone a total immersion in science literature to have produced it, and the audience can only be grateful.

One problem with science writing is that its existence as a separate category of literature is very recent. Only in the Victorian era did people start to call themselves scientists and it is probably only in the 20th century that scientific knowledge advanced so far that it became hard for non-specialists to understand.

Carey has wisely not allowed himelf to be swayed by this consideration. Instead, he starts with Leonardo da Vinci, dissecting corpses and speculating on flight and fossils. Galileo's telescope, van Leeuwenhoek's microscope and Newton's prism all get a look in, as do Vesalius and some early fellows of the Royal Society. Their experiments on dog dissection and blood transfusion in humans suggest that despite some mishaps, there has been substantial progress in animal rights and medical ethics in recent centuries. For the blood experiment, the Royal Society found a penniless Cambridge divinity graduate and paid him a guinea to have his blood exchanged for that of a sheep, in a public show attended by MPs and a bishop. It went perfectly well, according to Pepys's Diary, except that the sheep died and a few days later the divine grew wool "and a Northamptonshire sheep's tail did soon emerge or arise from his anus or human fundament".

However, the centuries which Carey has looted for the book have involved him in decisions about which pieces of writing stand in the direct line to modern scientific literature. One piece here, about the involvement of William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, in the Pendle witch trials of 1633, seems to be included mainly to make the point that scientists cannot stand outside the manias of their era, however absurd they may seem to us.

Others, like the work of Gilbert White and W. H. Hudson (on the cuckoo), are really about natural history rather than science, while Orville Wright is surely about engineering. And Daniel Boorstin on the discovery of prehistory is undoubtedly here on false pretences.

However, a quick look at the riches the book does contain will confirm its wide interest. There is a concerted clutch of material on fundamental physics (Roentgen, Becquerel, the Curies, Einstein, Rutherford, Born, Fermi, Frisch, Feynman, Gell-Mann) and another on evolution (Lamarck, Darwin, Mark Twain on Wallace, and in the modern era Richard Dawkins and Steven Jay Gould). Regrettably less familiar is the strand on chemistry, with two welcome pieces on the Russians Mendeleev and Kekule. Even non-linear mathematics and strange attractors are encountered towards the end.

For many readers, this book will force the realisation that many scientists write like angels. Michael Faraday starts with the burning of a candle, but in a few minutes has explained not only its many wonders but an important fraction of the mysteries of life on earth. Or try J. B. S. Haldane, educating the workers about science, or Primo Levi on the tale of a carbon atom.

In addition, science has provided a focus for memorable writing by many full-time authors. In this collection Isaac Asimov, best remembered today for science fiction which seemed to attach a low value to people and living things in general, appears via a piece of writing about the abuse of the earth's resources - and the impossibility of solving them by moving to other planets - which would appeal to any member of the Green party.

George Orwell writes in Tribune about toads, Nabokov describes butterflies, Ruskin praises rust, and Steinbeck turns up twice: once on sea cucumbers, and again on the amazing discovery of a louse trapped in the ink of a medieval manuscript.

If the book has a fault, it is its tendency to let writers talk about discoveries instead of using the words of the scientists themselves. One of the most astonishing scientific discoveries of all time - William Herschel's finding of Uranus in 1781 - is described here via a poem by Alfred Noyes. In fact Herschel's own account of the event is graphic. So are those by Galle and D'Arrest of the discovery of Neptune, and by Tombaugh of the finding of Pluto, either of which would have been an asset here.

Also problematic is the issue of just what to choose from the writings of some of the scientists featured here, many of whom managed to combine long hours in the laboratory with extensive lives as writers. The issue is often one of choosing between something that sets out a scientist's views on general issues or another that describes some close engagement with scientific advance. Interesting in the first category is David Bodanis on the link between Pasteur's socialism and his bacteriology. However, the piece by Freeman Dyson on the greenhouse effect is far from being his most interesting work.

It is impossible to select a favourite from among all this wealth: some old friends, like T. H. Huxley on chalk, are classics it is nice to meet again, while others make an impact by their unfamiliarity. For this reviewer, Anthony Smith on the brain falls into this category. Did you know that while in the womb, your embryo grew brain cells at a rate of 2,000 a second, every single one (usually) linked in an exact pattern to the others around it?

The conclusion must be that science gives rise to some fabulous prose about the most gripping subject matter imaginable. But I drew one other lesson from The Faber Book of Science. It seems that the subject has also given rise to some of the most embarrassing poetry ever perpertrated. In this collection, try Lavinia Greenlaw on radium, Erasmus Darwin on vegetable love or Hugh MacDiarmid on the poet and the scientist, which seems to be mainly an excuse to get the word masturbation into print. Glance swiftly at these and then concentrate on the good stuff.

Martin Ince is deputy editor of The THES.

The Faber Book of Science

Author - John Carey
ISBN - 0 571 16352 1
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £17.50
Pages - 528

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