Books: Popular Science - Natural selections

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The Independent Culture
POPULAR SCIENCE may not quite be the new rock'n'roll, but there were certainly parallels between the two art forms in the best science publications of 1998. We had the posthumous hit: a bestseller from Richard Feynman, in The Meaning of it All (Allen Lane, pounds 9.99), a collection of talks about why science is important, originally given in the early 1960s and appearing in print for the first time. To go with the "new" hit there were the obligatory re-issues - a paperback edition of his book Six Easy Pieces (Penguin, pounds 6.99), which is one of the very best introductions to physics for the uninitiated, and Six Not So Easy Pieces (Allen Lane, pounds 20), a new collection aimed at a slightly higher level. Anyone who reads the three Feynman books in that order will have a pretty clear idea of what science is all about, and get some entertainment on the way.

We also had new books from the equivalent of the dinosaurs of rock. Richard Dawkins demonstrated that an oldie can still be a goodie by moving into Feynman territory with his Unweaving the Rainbow (Allen Lane, pounds 18.99), attacking pseudo-science and ignorance on a broad front, while Paul Davies re-invented himself with The Fifth Miracle (Allen Lane, pounds 18.99), moving into Dawkins territory with a book (arguably his best ever) about the origin of life. What was so nice about the Davies book is the honest way it portrays a new scientific idea in the process of growing, and how he is careful to give due credit and space to rival ideas, explaining why he disagrees but ultimately leaving readers to choose the version they prefer.

But while these two were changing tack and coming up fresh with new material, Stephen Jay Gould played the Paul McCartney role, coming up with the mixture as before: a collection of essays, this time under the title Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (Cape, pounds 17.99). Gould is clever, but nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, and the mixture is perhaps a little over-familiar by now. Daniel Dennett did the same sort of thing better with his collection Brainchildren (Penguin, pounds 10.99), while Steven Pinker (who even looks like a rock star) offered a tough tutorial on what goes on inside your head with How the Mind Works (Allen Lane, pounds 20).

Speaking of children, we also had the pop science equivalent of Sean Lennon, with George Dyson, son of a famous physicist and science author, popping up with Darwin Among the Machines (Allen Lane, pounds 22.50), the best book I have ever seen about machine intelligence. And then, as in all genres, there were the biographies. Two stand out from the pack. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman (Fourth Estate, pounds 12.99) tells the bizarre tale of the mathematician Paul Erdos, as mad as several hatters put together but an undoubted genius who made major contributions to number theory. The story is so bizarre, like many rock biographies (Keith Moon springs to mind), that the book is a delight in spite of the author's limited grasp of the technique of writing continuous prose - which I guess also offers a parallel with pop.

For me, though, the science book of the year was another biography, the equivalent of the surprise number one from a debut artist. Georgina Ferry is new to books, but learned her trade at New Scientist, which is to science writers what Hamburg was to Liverpool beat groups of the 1960s. She has produced Dorothy Hodgkin: a life (Granta, pounds 20), which tells the story of one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography. Sounds dull? Believe me, it isn't.

Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for unravelling the structure of vitamin B12, and also determined (among other things) the structure of penicillin and of insulin. She was at the heart of the revolution in biological sciences in the mid-20th century. The story Ferry tells operates on several levels, as social history, science popularisation, and biographical memoir; it covers an enormous proportion of the developing world of modern science; and above all it is told by someone who really does know how to put words together. It may be Ferry's first book; it surely will not be her last. Dawkins and the other dinosaurs had better look to their laurels.

Dr John Gribbin's latest book is Almost Everyone's Guide to Science (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Popular Science

byJohn Gribbin