Friday, 4 September 2009

Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Richard Dawkins (ed.) ****

While it’s possible to quibble about the ‘modern’ in the title (it seems to mean twentieth century, with a bit of truly modern thrown in), this an excellent opportunity to dip a toe into the writings of a wide range of science writers, which is truly welcome.
All too often a collection like this has a few stars and the rest are also-rans, but here there is a truly stellar set of names. There are great names of science itself – Einstein, Feynman, Crick and Watson, Gamow, Turing and Hawking to skim but a few – and some of the best popularizers too. Richard Dawkins himself doesn’t have a contribution, arguably a mistake, as whatever you think of his ideas on science and religion, he is a good science writer. However, we don’t entirely miss out on the Dawkins wit and wisdom, as he contributes pithy prefaces to each extract – and extracts from books they are mostly, rather than short pieces in their own right.
It is very difficult to pick out favourites from such a rich collection. It isn’t always the obvious. I liked the rather humble and insight giving views of Freeman Dyson’s memory of a particular part of his early career. Ian Stewart’s exploration of infinity was elegant and enjoyable. And I was delighted to find a short piece by Fred Hoyle that explored a biological theme, rather than his usual cosmology. I could go on almost indefinitely.
Of course, as is always the case with lists and favourites, I can’t agree with all the choices. I wasn’t particularly thrilled or informed by Richard Gregory’s piece on why mirrors seem to reverse left and right but not top and bottom – an effect that can be much better and less pompously explored – and I have to admit reluctantly that Einstein’s piece is more there to get Einstein in than because it’s particularly interesting.
I’m not sure this a book many people would read cover to cover, but it’s great to dip into, to find science writing that intrigues you, and to follow up that author or book to get into some fascinating reading.
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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