Skip to main content

Litmus (SF) – Ra Page (Ed.) ***

A number of authors have attempted the difficult task of writing fiction that is used to explain science and it almost always fails. It’s just incredibly difficult to do well. Either the fiction isn’t good enough, or the science isn’t good enough – or the fiction is so obscure that it simply puts the reader off.
I confess, when I saw this book and got excited about reviewing it, I misunderstood what it was. The subtitle is ‘short stories from modern science’ so I thought it would be like Tania Hershman’s excellent collection of short stories The White Road, which takes science news as first seed of an idea for a story, but then provides a straightforward piece of fiction or science fiction. That works wonderfully well. But the approach that this book takes is much more directed to getting a scientific message across, and it suffers because of it.
What Litmus provides (and this is why it has made it into this site) is a series of short stories that are, in essence, historical fiction based on history of science. Each typically describes a key scientific moment, or someone being influenced by a key moment in scientific discovery. Each story is then followed by an essay that explains the significance of that moment and/or person in science.
In theory this could have worked very well, but I found most of the stories stiff and not particularly interesting reads. Where they put information across, it seemed forced – and when they didn’t, there didn’t seem a lot of point in the story. Then you would get the rather worthy essay, often unnecessarily deferential to the fiction it supported, which turned the whole thing into something that seemed like a school exercise rather than either a collection of good short stories or useful popular science.
There were some good stories – I’d pick out Tania Hershman’s, inspired by the glowing jellyfish gene. There were some mediocre stories, and some that seemed trivially pretentious (Stella Duffy’s piece, for example). Just to take one specific example in a bit more detail, there is a story set by Michael Jecks called Special Theory. Set in Bern, where Einstein worked in the Swiss patent office, it is an interaction between an unhappy British physicist, who is an Einstein fanboy, and a waitress. It sort of works as a story, though it’s a bit plonking in its conclusion. But I wasn’t comfortable with the historical context (several of the ‘facts’ about Einstein are dubious) nor, for that matter, that a physics professor would regard Einstein like a teenager looks to a pop star. The professor would know very well that Einstein’s contribution in special relativity was not the unique, light bulb moment he seems to suggest, and for that matter that Einstein was only one contributor to the development of the theory, not the sole, solitary genius behind it. Without doubt the most important contributor – but not working in isolation.
Overall, then, yet another attempt to marry fiction and popular science that has ended up on the rocks of incompatibility. A brave attempt – and I do still believe this ought to be possible. But it is clearly very difficult to do well.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…