Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch – Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen ****

When the whole “Science of…” or “Physics of…” business started off it all seemed pretty logical. Titles like Physics of Star Trek were eminently sensible. Star Trek may be fiction, but there’s a whole lot of science in there. Discworld, though, is a different kettle of kippers. This is fantasy – in fact such pure fantasy that the Discworld’s physical laws aren’t the same as ours.
It would see at first sight that this is a huge disadvantage – but the trio of Discworld originator Pratchett, and technical duo Stewart and Cohen turn the whole thing on its head and make it a great plus – so much so that this is the third volume in the series, and doesn’t suffer despite this.
The way the Science of Discworld books work is quite different from other members of the genre. The narrative alternates between fiction chapters, in which the magicians of Discworld merrily interfere with the workings of a toy universe they keep in little ball (it so happens to be our universe), and non-fiction chapters describing aspects of the real physical world that are brought out by the interference of the magicians. It’s a masterly conceit, and it works superbly.
This volume is largely dedicated to Darwin, both in the fiction (in which our world slips into a near alternative where Darwin is the Revd. Darwin, and writes Theology of Species, until all is stumblingly rescued by the wizards) and in the science chapters, which not only give a good explanation of evolution, and many of the ways it is misunderstood, but also include some highly enjoyable diversions, covering everything from steam engines to alternate universes.
To be honest, the book deserves five stars, were it not for an unfortunately vindictive chapter. More on that in a second. There were a couple of other minor moans (neither of which would lose the five stars, though). Pratchett fans will find the fictional parts just a little forced, as fiction always is when it’s being educational – it’s not as good as pure Pratchett by any stretch of the imagination, but is still highly entertaining. And though it’s hard to mention natural selection without criticising those who put forward intelligent design as an alternative, it wasn’t necessary to hammer this message home so unsubtly.
But the real disappointment is the chapter “secrets of life”, where, frankly, the authors come across as snotty and one-upmanish. They berate “popular science writers” for getting it wrong about evolution, portraying a wild misunderstanding of evolution that I’ve not seen in any decent popular science book written in the last 20 years. (They’re particularly hard on poor old Richard Dawkins, slightly more justified than most of their attack, but referring to something written a long time ago.) Admittedly their attack includes “popular science writers and TV journalists”, and sadly the time compression needed to get an explanation of genetics, DNA or evolution into 15 seconds does make some TV science fairly shaky, but even so there was no need for the rabid savaging. What particularly irritates is the way they give Martin Rees and two other astronomers a verbal kicking for daring to discuss a biological topic. Apart from falling into the common error of thinking the best explainers of science are specialists in an area – often they’re too close and are hopeless at explaining the topic to the general public – Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen (a fantasy writer, a mathematician and a biologist) have the cheek to do this, despite spending vast swathes of previous Science of Discworld books (and a fair amount of this one) on physics. Sauce for the goose, guys!
However, irritations with that chapter apart, this is a great book, and we’ll forgive them, even if they can’t forgive others, and say this is a must-have addition to any popular science collection. It’s rare for a popular science book to be a page turner, but this one truly is. Brilliant.
Review by Brian Clegg

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