Skip to main content

Science in Wonderland - Melanie Keene ***

It's an odd one this, though I was pleased to have it to read, as it makes a distinct change from the usual diet of heavy duty science.

Cambridge historian of science Melanie Keene introduces us to a genre I was unaware of - a peculiarly Victorian idea of putting across science for children using the mechanisms of fairy tales. Sell-out demonstrations at venues like the Royal Institution had shown the public appetite for science, when presented in the best way, and writers were enthusiastic to get these true wonders of the age across, but felt that children would best be introduced to science using intermediaries like fairies (relatively newly transformed from human-sized mischief-makers like Puck to insect-sized, much more attractive winged creatures) and wizards.

An obvious opportunity that was seized with both hands were the parallels between the dramatic revelations of the prehistoric existence of dinosaurs and storybook tales. Here the science was simply presented with some of the language of storytelling - dinosaurs would be described as monsters and dragons. But elsewhere, fairies, for instance, became intermediaries for getting the message across. In one chemistry book, for instance, different fairies represented different elements, bonds were the fairies holding hands and so forth.

One topic that inevitably got the fairytale treatment was evolution. Although the science was sometimes watered down, with the author making sure that there was room for a creative guiding hand, evolution was a natural fit for wonderland. It was fascinating to discover, for instant that Kingsley's The Water Babies was a book that was powerfully driven by evolution. I can see that now looking back, though when I read it as a child I just found it mawkish and silly, lacking the imagination, drive and wit of the Alice books with their explicit dismissal of fiction that had a worthy message.

Unfortunately, the author hasn't learned a lesson from her topic - that a good presentation of non-fiction makes use of some of the tools of fiction. Specifically, one of the big differences between a textbook and book to sit down, read and enjoy (as I presume this is supposed to be) is that good non-fiction should have a narrative arc. This book really doesn't. It doesn't appear to be going anywhere or drawing any significant conclusions from its observations. It takes us on a random tour, littered with unnecessary academic wording (I don't think I have ever read a book with so many occurrences of the word 'quotidian') unsupported by a feelimg of purpose or direction.

Certainly an interesting topic, then - covering one of the predecessors of popular science, and a subject that is widely unknown and deserves a wider audience - but the way it is put across is not ideal.
Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…