Sometimes popular science books can rightly be accused of lacking a story. But not this one – it’s a gripping tale of scientific fraud, as a scientist who was regularly published in the world’s two top journals, Nature and Science, repeatedly pretended to do experiments he hadn’t, and made up data that was an impossibly good fit to theory (sometimes not even the right theory).
I know a little bit about scientific fraud, because I participated in it. When I was ten, we were supposed to do an experiment where you blew between two suspended ping pong balls and reported on what was observed. I couldn’t be bothered to do it, and just wrote down what I thought would happen (I was wrong). The dressing down I got from my teacher would stay with me forever. It’s not a mistake I would make twice. But it was quite different for Jan Hendrick Schön, the subject of this book. He would add fraud upon fraud, digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself as he went along.
The book makes some good points about the limitations of science’s ability to spot fraud, while admitting that in the end it is likely to be found out. But it misses the opportunity to really explore the personality of someone who could do this. Why did Schön do it? How could he possibly hope to get away with it, when he knew others would try to duplicate his pretend experiments, or ask to see actual experimental materials? It is never really explained. What we get instead is a bit too much like a reporter’s notebook – much to much ‘he said, she said’ as different scientists explain what they saw and what they believed to be happening.
The trouble is, it’s a superb tale, but it’s not told in a way that gives any sense of storytelling. It could be better structured and it could have much more compulsion, more pulling of the reader along. It doesn’t help that at the end we’re left with a series of questions about how scientific results could be handled better – but the author gives us no suggestions of answers.
What isn’t the author’s fault, is that it is also published on what seems to be recycled toilet paper – it’s very pulp feeling, not nice on the fingers. Probably very green, but it’s the sort of reading experience that makes me think ‘bring on the e-reader.’
In terms of the subject, this is a five star book, and it is well worth reading, but it does feel a little like a wasted opportunity.
Don’t get the idea that this is a bad book because it only gets three stars. It’s an excellent compendium of information about our nearest and most spectacular (if you don’t count the sun) heavenly body.
The book is divided into sections, beginning with a general facts section, before going onto an ‘astronomers’ section that takes us through the timeline from the very first possible recordings of the moon in prehistoric carvings to observations from the Apollo missions. Some sections are better that others. One called ‘Gardening and the Weather’ for example smacks a little of desperation, going into the weird ideas of biodynamics at considerably more length than this fringe concept deserves. By contrast, the book finishes with a delightful selection called miscellany that pulls together all sorts of odds and sods from moon-oriented cocktails to moon hoaxes and musical references. It’s no wonder there’s a comment from Ben Schott of Schott’s Miscellany on the front.
Delightful though that final chapter is, it brings out the real flaw in this book and the reason it only scores three stars – it’s almost impossible to read from cover to cover. It’s a dip-in book, and as such struggles to live up to the label of popular science. Given its nature I’d have liked to have seen more illustrations. There are two sets of good colour plates, but it could be argued that a book like this – almost Dorling Kindersley style – needs to be illustrated throughout.
Apparently it’s the UNESCO Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo’s first recorded astronomical observations, plus the fortieth anniversary of the first manned moon landings, so the book is certainly timely. It’s by no means a bad effort, but I’d love to see a proper, well written popular science narrative book on the subject.
I started off as something of a sceptic with this book – I wasn’t sure if it was an ‘improve yourself’ manual or a science book, and to begin with it is very, very repetitive. (If I see ‘skill is a myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals’ one more time I’ll scream.) But it grew on me as an approach, even though I have some issues with the message, which I’ll come back to.
The odd thing about it is that the central scientific concept has been known about for decades – what happens is not at all new – but why it happens is a revelation. The idea is that through reinforcement – ‘deep practice’ as Daniel Coyle calls it – particularly when things go wrong in ways we can pick up and learn from – our brain develops pathways that become more efficient. This has been talked about for a long time in terms of the brain being a self-patterning system, where the more we use particularly pathways the more bandwidth they carry – the only new bit of science is the knowledge that this ‘thickening’ is actually of the myelin sheath around the neurons.
However, what Coyle does most effectively is to combine the information about this feature of the brain with observations of how to practice, an understanding of how seeing individuals break out can ‘ignite’ breakthroughs in others, and an excellent analysis of the most effective approach to coaching. As he makes clear, the idea that good coaching is about strong leadership and charisma simply isn’t true – it’s much more about micro manipulation on the edge of an individual’s or team’s capabilities.
This aspect of making pathways easier to use has been a conscious factor in creativity circles for many years as an example of why, to be creative, you need to slow down, to let your mind wander – because under pressure the brain uses those high bandwidth pathways and you do the same old thing. So Coyle’s ‘talent code’ is actually about how to shut down creativity. To be creative you need to make new links, new connections, travel down little used routes. If his book is correct, the talent this approach fosters is great for the sort of activity that has to be mechanical, automatic and without real creativity – playing music or sport, for example – but is useless for any kind of talent requiring creative thought.
Coyle fails to pick up on this. What he doesn’t spot is that there are two distinct aspects to a creative art like music or writing. One is technical skill. This is what he concentrates on with music (his writing examples are few and poor). But there is also the creativity required in being a composer, which requires a whole different kind of capability. Similarly, he points out a lot of writing is craft. And it is. This aspect of it can be enhanced by the approach he mentions. But it’s useless for coming up with new ideas – an equally important part of writing.
This is why the vast majority of the book concentrates on playing sport and playing music – both low creativity, high physical skill activities. As long as you realize this is what the book is about, then it really is worth reading and makes great points. What is off-putting and should be ignored though is Coyle’s claim, typified in the subtitle ‘unlocking the secret of skill in maths, art, music, sport and just about everything’ that this is a universal panacea. Sadly, it isn’t.
Somewhat over half of this book dates back more than twenty years, while the final 130 pages or so are twenty-first century additions. It’s a collection of (mostly) short pieces – and this is something David Quammen does superbly well. There are occasions when he seems to realize how well he does it, but apart from this occasional smugness it’s excellent writing where the topic interests him – patently obvious when he’s talking about wildlife.
Sometimes the approach can take you by surprise – speaking in defence of the mosquito, for example – and always there’s something to delight. I particularly liked the piece that puts across the idea that crows are bored underachievers, and the paean to the bat.
In his earlier writing, there’s only set of pieces where the lustre fades a little, and that’s when he talking about geology rather than natural history. It clearly doesn’t work for him quite the same way.
When I got onto the more modern section, I thought that Quammen was suffering from a literary version of that old chestnut that scientists do all their best work before they’re thirty. The first couple of pieces are tedious and really don’t live up to the electric prose of the earlier sections. But the realization comes with much better pieces further on that it’s not the date that’s the issue, it’s the length. Quammen’s writing style is absolutely perfect for a short, quickly digested piece. When you get to these longer articles – 28 and 49 pages – the whole delicate construction disappears and we’re left with something that isn’t in the same league. But don’t be put off – there are more short pieces to come.
Despite the disappointment raised by those couple of relative clunkers, the collection as a whole is engrossing and the short pieces are just the right length to capture the interest without ever flagging. The older pieces are as fresh, if not fresher, than the newer ones. All-in-all, just as Quammen clearly enjoys exploring the natural world, you will enjoy exploring the world of his writing.