By Jeremy Stangroom
Does anyone know what's going on? For the non-scientist, one of the more baffling aspects of science is the way that scientists, when interviewed, often seem to say that they don't really know. Speaking as one who knows absolutely nothing (apart from that the Earth goes round the Sun, which, to be honest, I always have to check mentally against Cassell's Golden Book of Astronomy, eagerly perused when I was 10), I can't believe this. Having done all those years of science, they must know something.
Underlying Jeremy Stangroom's fascinating series of 12 interviews with leading scientists is his exploration with them of the basis of their work.
Stangroom's philosophical probings establish that they mean science is the business of knowing something only until a more convincing explanation comes along, a process called falsification. In the everyday world I think that counts as knowing something, pretty much. I'm quite happy to know how to roast potatoes until I hear of a better way, and quite happy to abandon the first way if the second way turns out better.
So, Newton, Darwin and co are safe sources of theory still, and there is loads of observation and complicated explanation stored under the heading "science", much of which you need lots of maths to digest. But these 12 helpful brains can give you the gist - not of current theories but of the relationship eminent practitioners have with their areas of expertise.
Thus we have geneticist Steve Jones discussing Darwin, creationism, and GM crops in a crisp polemic on how to assess probability; evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker discriminating between the conclusions on human nature which he draws from ethnographic evidence and questions thrown up about individual free will and accountability; astronomer Martin Rees illuminating quantum theory with his passion for understanding the universe.
Highly personal yet wholly intellectual, the interviewees reflect current hotspots in research: Kenan Malik and Susan Greenfield talking about neuroscience and consciousness, even though Greenfield talks about this as a CLM (career-limiting move); Norman Levitt and Colin Blakemore on the threats to science from creationists, post-modernists and animal welfare campaigners; Dorothy Crawford and Mike Stratton on microbiology and cancer research; Edward O Wilson on biodiversity; Robin Murray on schizophrenia; and Kevin Warwick on robotics. Warwick plans to live long enough to link himself up biologically to a computer and become the world's first cyborg.
For the rest of us, this book will be a more pleasant addition to brain power.