Life and the Universe in brief

28th October 2007 at 01:00

Science Master series. The Origins of the Universe By John D Barrow 0 297 81497 4. The Last Three Minutes By Paul Davies 0 297 81502 4 The Origin of Humankind By Richard Leakey 0 297 81503 2 Weidenfeld amp; Nicholson pound;9.99 each

John Durant reviews the new Science Masters series and asks if it will satisfy the growing demand for popular science. There has been something of a boom in popular science book publishing over the past few years.

About a decade ago, the number of trade books with scientific themes was relatively small. Few large publishers bothered with a science list; cash advances for authors were generally modest or nonexistent, and only scientists who were really committed to popularisation found outlets for their work.

Today, by contrast, the rate of production of new titles is much greater.More and more large publishers are developing science lists, sizeable cash advances for suitable authors are commonplace; and it is not unusual for distinguished scientists who have never thought about popularisation to find themselves being courted by entrepreneurial literary agents and commissioning editors.

It is not entirely clear who or what is responsible for this publishing boom. Certainly, the extraordinary commercial success of Stephen Hawking's record-breaking Brief History of Time (1987) has something to do with it; and so, too, does the entrepreneurial zeal of literary agents like John Brockman, who have taken their cue from Hawking and started to sign up a whole series of eminent scientists to write popular books. It may be, too, that the creation of cash incentives such as the Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prizes has something to do with it. But whether or not it was through the example of Hawking, or the existence of literary awards, it seems that publishers have at last discovered that science sells. To date, it has to be said, no one has managed to make it sell as well as Hawking. But it's certainly becoming commoner to see popular works by genuinely important scientists on the shelves of high street book shops; and many of these books are commercially successful.

By any standards, Science Masters is a pretty bold initiative in popular science publishing. Coming from Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson in the UK and Basic Books in the USA, the series offers the distinctive formula of relatively short (130-160 page) accessible hard-backs from top-flight scientists for about Pounds 10. (It will be interesting to see whether the impending collapse of the Net Book Agreement leads to any undercutting on this price; to my eye, Pounds 10 seems a bit steep for a text of only 50,000 words.) To launch the series, the publishers have chosen three familiar names from the world of popular science writing: cosmologists John Barrow and Paul Davies, and anthropologist Richard Leakey. Future contributors to the series will include Richard Dawkins, Colin Blakemore, Stephen Jay Gould and Marvin Minsky. Popular science junkies, then, can look forward to a literary feast over the coming months.

Or can they? Though I find it galling to have to admit it, I confess that I found these three books less than riveting. This may be because the topics are now so familiar to me. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that cosmology and human evolution have been done to death by publishers over the past few years; but certainly, we're not short of very good books on either subject. To hold our attention in such well-trodden territory, authors need to break fresh ground; but my guess is that these authors were asked to provide surveys for the benefit of the uninitiated; and this means that for the most part they take firmly familiar paths. To be sure, Davies adopts a rather original line in cosmology by turning our attention from first to last things - from Genesis, if you will, to Revelation; but even this introduces less novelty than you might imagine, since in cosmology, as in the scriptures, first and last things are intimately connected.

The best of these books is Barrow's The Origins of the Universe. Barrow is a consistently interesting cosmologist, not least because he seems rather more aware than most of the historical and philosophical dimensions of his subject. As he says, cosmology does not fit neatly into conventional attempts to define science. Its ideas are at once far more theoretically ambitious and far less empirically secure than those of other physical sciences. Certainly, cosmology has come a long way since the early 1960s, when, according to some, the entire subject rested on a single empirical generalisation - Hubble's Law, which suggests that the universe is expanding. Today, as both Barrow and Davies allow, there are many facts and findings in cosmology; but still, the subject tends to cut loose from its empirical moorings in ways that would alarm most scientists working in other, more conventional subject-areas.

To talk, as Davies does, of the quest for immortality in a universe that may be heading for either infinite expansion or "the Big Crunch ' (tantalisingly, it seems that the universe is poised on the knife edge between these two fates) is, as he appears to recognise, to blur the distinction between science and science fiction; but it is also, as he appears not to recognise, to blur the distintion between physics and metaphysics.

Leakey's book is at once the most accessible and the least satisfactory of the three books. For one thing, Leakey himself is not now as closely involved in his subject as are Barrow and Davies in theirs; and for another, he brings to his subject the very particular - and, some would argue, the very partial - preoccupations of the fossil-hunter. Fossil- hunting has always been the most glamorous aspect of human palaeoanthropology; but it has always been oversold in terms of what it can really tell us about our origins. Time and again, vast edifices of historical speculation have been built upon single, often extremely fragmentary fossil finds.

Leakey is aware of this. and for the most part he tempers his account with appropriate caution. More than most fossil-hunters have been able or willing to do, he is able to stand back from his own discoveries and put them in the context of other people's work. Nevertheless, The Origin of Humankind remains a fossil-hunter's view of human evolution. It does not give enough attention to either the theoretical mechanisms that must ultimately be invoked to explain human origins, or the molecular data that,for all its relative lack of glamour, is probably the single best source of evidence we possess about where humankind comes from.

Interestingly, all three of these books are concerned with historical science. Reading them together provides an interesting lesson in the different historical preoccupations of physicists and human palaeoanthropologists. For the most part, the physicists are concerned with the fundamental principles that may explain the large-scale features of the universe.

For them, mere details such as the number, size and structure of the galaxies (never mind the number, size and structure of the planets) are of less interest than questions such as: why are there galaxies at all? For the palaeoanthropologists, by contrast, it is the particular fact of Homo sapiens that requires explanation. Just as the fundamental principles of cosmology say little about why our solar system should happen to contain the earth, so the fundamental principles of evolutionary theory say little about why especially large-brained apes should have emerged in Africa several million years ago. This means that the anthropologists are obliged to enter into a kind of empirical reconstruction of particular historical events that has no place in modern cosmology.

It is not surprising that historical science should be the common theme of the first three books in the Science Masters series. Some parts of science will always be more popular than others; and the study of origins has always been (and, I guess, will always remain) more popular than most. Nevertheless, I wonder a little about the narrow range of topics chosen for the series as a whole. Of the first 12 titles - the three here, and nine more still to be published - three are about cosmology, four are about evolution and four are about brain and intelligence. (The last of the 12, by Mary Catherine Bateson, is entitled Change, Adaptation and Learning and could, on the face of it, be about almost anything.) It may be that this extraordinary concentration on just three areas of science is a by-product of decisions made on the basis of authorship; or it could be that it reflects the publishers' views of what is of interest or importance to the general reader. Either way, I hope that as the series grows, a greater range of subjects will be included. John Durant is Assistant Director (Head of Science Communication) at the Science Museum, London, and Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Imperial College,London.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today