Science's universal appeal;Book of the week;Books

7th May 1999 at 01:00
GALILEO'S COMMANDMENT. An Anthology of Great Science Writing. Edited by Edmund Blair Bolles. Little, Brown pound;20.

While the pages of many popular science books remain unthumbed, writes Trevor Phillips, this anthology promises a thrilling journey of discovery for everyone

The truth about "popular" science writing by practising scientists is that much of what is written goes unread. A notoriously unscientific newspaper survey on Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time suggested that, although millions of people bought it, the volume went from shop to shelf with few readers bothering to attempt more than the first 10 pages.

This is not a particular criticism of the scientist. Books written by scientists are no more or less likely to be readable than, say, books by policemen or soldiers. We know just as little about the technical aspects of crime or war as we do about physics or biology.

Moreover, an appetite obviously exists for questions and answers about the natural world; books by Carl Sagan about the cosmos, or by John Gribbin about physics sell by the lorryload. But these are rarely narrative accounts of scientific work, and that is probably what makes most science writing a minority interest.

We tend to take the fruits of scientific enquiry for granted. We are happy that a machine works or that a process produces something useful, and we want to discuss what we might do with, say gene therapy or quantum mechanics; we only really want to peer inside the science when it goes wrong.

That is what separates the scientists from the rest of us. Most of us want to talk about uses of science. But scientists are restless, curious children who do not care whether the thing works or not - they just want to know more about how it does whatever it does.

The late comedian Peter Cook once performed a sketch in which he - as the wispy-moustached bore E L Wisty - declares his specialist hobby as "the nature of the universe and all that is in it". It could be a description of Francis Bacon's wide-ranging desire to know just about everything there was to know. It led to Bacon's death from a cold, caught trying to show that packing chickens in snow would preserve them for longer than hanging them in the shed. But his work also established scientific method. And the search for understanding fired Einstein's anguished observation that even his refinement on Newtonian physics, the theory of relativity, could only ever be considered an approximation of reality.

In the most interesting extract in the book, Heisenberg argues that although we can never be absolutely certain an event will take place, we base many of our day-to-day actions on statistical laws - so the engineer builds the dam safe in the knowledge that a certain amount of rain will fall next year, even though it is impossible to predict the rainfall on any particular day. But in judging this book, I can be unequivocal on a sample of one. It works at virtually every level. Those who have a science background will find it an entertaining trawl through areas of work they vaguely know about, but the origins of which they have little idea; and the contributions from each reader's own discipline are often revealing, coming as they do from the icons of the knowledge area. For the less scientifically minded, there is enough narrative here to thrill, and nothing lasts too long, or is too demanding.

But it is the fact that these are principally the words of great scientists themselves that really persuades. Edmund Blair Bolles does not set out to give us a seamless history of the development of scientific thought, merely to put together what he regards as readable extracts from the work of great thinkers who have used scientific method. This approach gives us something special - the excitement of the scientist's own voyage of discovery. Most of the great heroes are here - Herodotus, da Vinci, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Haldane, Watson and of course Galileo.

The two extracts from Galileo neatly summarise the two aspects of his greatness: the account of his first observations through a telescope, a model of scientific method, complete with conclusions; then an extract from his dialogue "The Two Chief World Systems - Ptolemaic and Copernican", in which two imaginary characters dispute the nature of gravity before an audience of one, who has to be convinced. It is like one of those ferocious confrontations from TV programmes such as Newsnight, except that it has intelligence as well as wit, and analyses the facts thrillingly.

There are also writers about science here, notably Karl Popper and Isaac Asimov, plus a sublime piece by the Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi. It is a chapter from The Periodic Table, in which each chapter dwells on a single element. The one reproduced here is a subtle tale of the eons-long life of a carbon atom, ending with a typically mischievous flick of the narrative.

I could complain that the whole collection uses the term "science" to mean "a Western European understanding of the natural world", but this would be nitpicking; there will no doubt be another collection that describes the world as seen by other traditions. This collection will find a treasured place on my bookshelf.

Trevor Phillips is a writer, TES columnist and broadcaster and presents 'The Material World' for BBC Radio 4.

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