A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

What are you doing for National Science Week?" threatens the PR material from one publisher, jabbing its Kitchener-like finger at some cringing arts grad in the press (ie, me). Well, I could point out that this annual jamboree (from 17 to 26 March) has shucked off the boring Newtonian definition of a "week". Or I could suggest that, next Saturday, you look out here for an interview with the legendary figure who gave Pop-Sci writing its poll position on the media grid.

What are you doing for National Science Week?" threatens the PR material from one publisher, jabbing its Kitchener-like finger at some cringing arts grad in the press (ie, me). Well, I could point out that this annual jamboree (from 17 to 26 March) has shucked off the boring Newtonian definition of a "week". Or I could suggest that, next Saturday, you look out here for an interview with the legendary figure who gave Pop-Sci writing its poll position on the media grid.

The required response, of course, would be lavish awestruck praise on the publisher's latest Bumper Book of Big Ideas. Yet science literature, like the experimental procedures it ought to reflect, remains subject to contest and revision over time. Lay readers who approach it hanker for a guarantee, not of absolute truth, but of significance. We want to be sure that any Pop-Sci text did, or could, make an asteroidal impact in its field. Hence the potential value of two new, selective lists of paperback reprints: "Science Classics" from Penguin and "Popular Science" from Oxford.

The Penguin list belies its name with jazzy covers and a strong choice of contentious, rather than safely synoptic, titles - Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, and Paul Davies's The Fifth Miracle, among others. Wonderfully rich works, of course; but, in a few cases, that armour-plated "classics" tag might normally have had to wait.

Oxford's silver-jacketed contenders look a trifle more austere (and a pound dearer: mostly £7.99). Yet here, too, the claim to vast authority shelters work that sometimes argues a deeply disputable case. Take Susan Blackmore's stimulating The Meme Machine (£7.99). This is her extended riff on Dawkins's notion of the "meme", as the cultural equivalent to a gene - a package of information that encodes art, ideas or beliefs in an imitable form, and so transmits them down the generations.

Do memes really exist? Not in the verifiable sense that genes do. It's a supple, useful metaphor, but no more purely "scientific" than the notions wielded by a critic or philosopher. So my final answer to the demand, "What are you doing for National Science Week" would be - inviting readers to explore modish Pop-Sci "explanations" with the same scepticism they'd apply to any other quick-fix general theory.

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