Skip to main content

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.

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…