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
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain