BOOK REVIEW / Of microbes and men

Scientific literature can be as creative as fiction. ; The Faber Book of Science by John Carey Faber, pounds 17.50

The big bang happened in 1988, as everyone in publishing knows. It was then that Stephen Hawking brought out A Brief History of Time, and the universe of science books has been expanding ever since. Plenty of this cosmological debris should be allowed simply to float by. Most people would do better not to touch another science book until they have read John Carey's anthology.

There can be few happier marriages between the "two cultures" of science and literature than this collection by an Oxford professor of English. Its success is partly due to his application of a simple formula: "the first question I asked about any piece I thought of including was, Is this so well written that I want to read it twice?" If only more editors asked that question. Lay readers of popular science have had to get used to reading passages more than once, but for rather different reasons. Such works are not often as approachable as they are blurbed to be, so Carey's efforts at sifting out some of the intelligible gold are timely and welcome. As well as classics of popularisation, such as Michael Faraday's "On a Candle", TH Huxley's "On a Piece of Chalk" and JBS Haldane's "On Being the Right Size", plus more recent prose-poets of science, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, he has found many items that are both unfamiliar and enchanting.

Although Carey has cast his net widely, he wisely stops short of including any contributions to the zombie-like debate (dead, but still walking the earth) about whether science is a good thing. By referring to that issue as the question of "whether we would be better off if we did not know the earth went round the sun", he says just about everything that needs to be said on the subject. There is very little here about the nature of science, just plenty of the thing itself.

It is not by any means all by professional scientists. The contributors include Mark Twain (a killingly funny attack on the idea that the earth was made for man), Nabokov (on butterflies), Orwell (on toads) and Thoreau (unforgettably on ants). If the result helps to show what a broad church science can be, then it is no bad idea to let amateurs rub shoulders with the likes of Stephen Jay Gould and EO Wilson. There are a few purple passages of anthropomorphic excess about our fellow creatures, but they are forgivable in the circumstances. The amateur geology of Ruskin, and Berlioz at the dissecting table, are excellent finds. Carey also sometimes draws on biographers and general historians to provide some background: an attempt to relate Pasteur's teeming germs to his politics is a careful treatment of a tricky subject. Many poets are included, plus the odd dramatist or novelist. The theory of chaos is seen not only from the point of view of professional science writers but also from a play by Tom Stoppard. The discovery of X-rays is seen not only through the eyes of Roentgen himself, but also those of Hans Castorp visiting the sanatorium in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.

Carey is evidently keen to stamp out the idea that scientific literature is less creative than fiction or poetry. Many of the pieces admirably demonstrate that imagination plays a crucial role in the best scientific work, not only in the business of discovery but also in seeing beyond the limitations of "common sense", and in the sort of manipulation of ideas that is required to create a deep understanding of familiar things. A passage by Peter Atkins illustrates this last type of creative vision:

"Light, we all know, travels in straight lines. If it could bend round corners, the world would be harder to discern. It would be like listening to it instead of seeing it. We would be immersed in a symphony of colour from objects that could be vaguely located but only hazily scrutinised. There would be no night; the symphony would be endless."

But imagination is only one instrument in the scientific orchestra. Tireless observation, hard grind and a willingness to follow the course of investigation, even when it becomes tiresome or unsavoury, matter as well. Several of the medical entries are as pleasantly revolting as one might expect. One cannot read "The Man with a Lid on his Stomach" without wishing that the unfortunate man would close it - though not just yet. Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's accounts of the moon add a personal touch to the painstaking calculation and engineering that made their journey possible. John Steinbeck's discovery of a medieval louse in an 11th-century manuscript neatly underlines the fact that curiosity and carefulness are two crucial ingredients of scientific activity in its broadest sense.

For the genuinely curious, the surprise of discovering that one has not been quite careful enough can be one of science's joys. This is just as well, because the history of the subject is a river of mistakes surging with red herrings. Consider the well-known fact that female praying mantises eat their mates during copulation - which happens to a myth. Carey includes here the account from 1886 which probably started the legend he is now helping to propagate. Who can blame him? The report is transfixing in its horror. He also appends part of a paper from 1935 that explains why decapitation might actually improve the sexual performance of the male. (Don't try this one at home, folks.) But Carey should have added that early experimenters were probably either careless or else underestimated the dietary requirements of the female mantis. Maybe this fearsome insect has become more civilised, or maybe modern laboratories are not enough of a turn-on. Either way, today's female mantis does not eat her mate unless she is starved first and even then the precaution of a particularly impressive courtship display can save his neck.

Another myth to which Carey may give too much credence is the idea that science began only in the 16th century. By including nothing earlier than this, he unwittingly gives succour to the view that science is a newish invention that could only flourish in what some see as the dehumanised environment of the modern world. He does not, I think, really believe that modern science is the only science there has ever been. Given his rightly broad characterisation of science and technology, how could he think that? But he seems to have given up the search for ancient excerpts too quickly. Darwin wrote that "Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods ... but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle". There are a dozen passages from Aristotle's zoology which could have appeared here, and several from his physics too. Pappus on the instinctive geometry of bees, Theophrastus on medicinal plants, Plutarch on Archimedes's military technology, the list of candidates could go on and on. Since Carey allows himself to use secondary literature, he could also have included modern accounts of the Pythagoreans on number and harmony, Democritus on atoms, or many other remarkable stabs at scientific thinking.

And what of the first great populariser of rationalism, Lucretius? There are some striking parallels between his On the Nature of Things and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and a few passages from Lucretius - or else perhaps part of the Hippocratic text, On the Sacred Disease, which argues that epilepsy is not supernatural but is explicable by natural causes - could have made a fitting start to the book. Such pieces would have also underlined the fact that scientific curiosity and its special brand of imaginative insight are not inventions of modernity. True, such ancient material often (not always) includes information that has subsequently turned out to be mistaken. But that does not prevent it from being a contribution to science, let alone a contribution to clear science writing. Remember the fiendish passions of the female mantis, or rather her lack of them.

Anthony Gottlieb is Science and Technology editor of the `Economist'

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy