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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I boug…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …