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
Saturday 23 September 1995
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'
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