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The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, ed. Richard Dawkins
A fine workout for agile minds
Friday 16 May 2008
Richard Dawkins's profile has morphed in recent years: from the most lucid science writer of our time, the man who makes his readers feel smarter than they really are, to the Chief Pastor of World Atheism Inc. Despite the astonishing sales of The God Delusion, there has been some loss. His new role has made his job of evolution's champion harder because the religious right in the US has always sought to tarnish evolution by association with atheism, communism and a declension of debaucheries. Happily, in this book, the evangelising is confined to the celebration of good science writing.
This isn't Dawkins as the centre of attention but as a benign and generous guide to the best science writing, with commentaries by the master. His brief is fairly rigorous: it is 20th century, by practising scientists only, and all originally in English, bar Primo Levi, who was too important to leave out and whose work, in any case, reads beautifully in translation.
A few difficult pieces throw into relief the excellence and clarity of writers such as Steve Jones, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley and Dawkins himself. Sidney Brenner's "Theoretical Biology in the Third Millennium" is not over-technical by the standards of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, for whom it was written, but you can tell that he is speaking to scientists. In contrast, Matt Ridley imaginatively evokes the wonder of the discovery of DNA's structure by focusing on 1943, 10 years before the event, as threads lead towards the denouement.
The anthology proves that there is a canon of science literature and that the best science writers are prose stylists of the highest order. Every major field has great writers who can render the developing stories as real narratives: Dawkins, Jones and Ridley in biology, Jared Diamond in demography, Steven Pinker in linguistics and psychology; Steven Weinberg in cosmology; Roald Hoffman (not included) and Pete Atkins in chemistry.
Strangely, or perhaps not, this genius doesn't stretch to poetry. Dawkins admits this but includes three poems anyway. Scientists are ineluctably attracted to facetious light verse the way heavy sediments drain to the bottom of the centrifuge. JBS Haldane's "Cancer is a funny thing" deserves its place as a characteristic expression of a remarkable personality ("I wish I had the muse of Homer/ To sing of rectal carcinoma"); Barbara and George Gamow's "Said Ryle to Hoyle" should never have got any further than the lab noticeboard. Julian Huxley's "God and Man" is a surprise: recognisably a poem and not mere verse. There are some lapses of literary judgement. The book begins with cosmology's interwar pundit, James Jeans, peddling clichés such as "a grain of sand", "twinkling of an eye": nebulosities that should have been allowed to drift into the cosmic recycling bin.
Readers who think of Dawkins as a writer on biology might be surprised by the number of mathematical, physical and cosmological entries. But attentive readers will have noticed his love of computing and jeux d'esprit and will know that intellectual puzzles tickle him more than lyrical evocations of the spirit of nature, although there are some of those. His pantheon includes Douglas Hofstadter of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame, and the long-time games columnist from Scientific American, Martin Gardner.
Dawkins is, above all, a thinker with a logician's mind. So we have two pieces featuring Achilles and the tortoise (one mathematical, one philosophical); the solitaire game "Life" in which interesting recurring patterns evolve in a board game that follows simple iterative rules; and why prey when threatened always tend to end up in clumps, thus offering an easy target en masse.
If it's lyricism you're after, Rachel Carson's long prose poem to the oceans is outstanding. The grandeur and nobility of the scientific quest are most eloquent in Carl Sagan, who gets the last word, a plea to "preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known". Every reader is likely to make a discovery or two. For me, it was that the intricate cryptic crosswords we enjoy would not be possible without the 50 percent redundancy of the English language. As Dawkins himself once said, as he embarked on a difficult passage in The Blind Watchmaker, it will help to bring your "mental running shoes".
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