I have said many times that there must be a way to combine fiction and popular science – to get a message across and provide a great story to enjoy as well. But it is a horriblydifficult thing to do, as the many failures fallen by the wayside have shown. In New Stars for Old, Marc Read takes the most original approach to this I have ever seen, and it holds out real promise to deliver on the dream.
In his introduction, Read points out that science is done by people, and as such we can’t really separate the achievements of science from the lives and times of the people making the discoveries. This is true, though his suggestion that the people are usually ignored applies more to textbooks than popular science – many popular science books spend a fair amount of time on the scientists and their lives. Read takes this one stage further, though, by giving us a series of fictional vignettes of the lives of people who have carried astronomy a step forward. Their scientific achievements come into it, but only incidentally. Each piece of fiction is then followed by a page of notes, which explain what is real and what is fiction, sometimes adding a tiny bit about the science.
There is a danger in taking this approach of producing a hilarious parody of a cartoon life. You could imagine a physics equivalent where we have a dialogue something like this:
‘Good morning, Michael. What are you doing today?’
‘Well, Mrs Faraday, or wife as I should call you, today I thought I would invent electromagnetism. Unless it’s sunny, in which case I shall take a stroll in the park. Or as us northerners would say, despite years living in the south, “a stroll in’t park”.’
Thankfully, the real thing is nothing like this. Read’s vignettes are well described, giving an effective picture of the time, and the science is introduced in as natural a way as is possible, though even here it can occasionally be a little stilted.
In terms of the idea and the broad direction, this is a five star book. But I do have some issues. The indirect nature of the science storytelling means that it isn’t always really very clear what it’s about. I know what Aristotle’s version of astronomy was like – but I struggled to see it in the occasional mentions amongst the rather lovey dovey description of the big man’s home life. It really needed more time on the science. Also, the downside of a series of vignettes is that the whole thing does not flow at all. It is, as they say in the fiction world, episodic in the extreme.
For me, the selection of scenes was too biassed to the early period. There are just too many medievals making minor steps forward. I wrote a book about Roger Bacon, so I am interested in the period, but still found the procession of King Roger II, Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swineshead, Nicolas Oresme, Cardinal Bessarion, Regiomontanus became more than a little dull. Newton is the final person covered, when arguably most of the really interesting astronomy was only just beginning. (Perhaps the rest are being saved for a sequel.)
Despite the fiction not really keeping my interest, particularly with the medievals (I had to resist flicking forward and just reading the notes), I still think this is a very brave and worthwhile venture. I think the format could well deliver that gold at the end of the rainbow that is popular-science-as-fiction – but more work is required to get the balance right.