Monday, 2 March 2015

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:  
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Review by Brian Clegg

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