Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…