Saturday, 28 March 2015

Scientific Babel - Michael D. Gordin ***

This is one of the hardest books to review I've ever come across. Supertitled The language of science from the fall of Latin to the rise of English it has plenty to appeal to a science writer, for whom the combination of science and language is so important. But can it be of general interest, and what's it like as a book?

The good news is that there is plenty of genuinely interesting material in here. I found particularly absorbing the parts on the fall of Latin, the dispute over the periodic table (in which language played a major part), the development of constructed languages like Esperanto - the story of the rapid rise and fall of Ido, an Esperanto variant without sillinesses like accents, is particularly impressive - and the early material on the development of machine translation, driven as it seemed to have been, much like the space race, by the USA and the USSR's respective needs to stay on top of what the others were doing - though things seemed to get stuck at the Sputnik moment, with no equivalent of the Moon race.

Sadly, though, there's quite a lot of negative to balance the good bits. The book is far too long (and in small print at that), with a tendency to pile on detail that would not be of use for anything other than an academic tome. It could have been enjoyably readable throughout, as was true of much of my favourite sections above, but Michael Gordin repeatedly gets bogged down in the minor to-ing and fro-ing over, say, Russian publication in German journals and suddenly the pages yawn before the reader, inviting a considerable amount of skipping.

I persevered, reading the whole way through (okay, I skipped about six pages when I got particularly bored), and I am glad that did - but it was genuinely hard work in places. On the whole, the author's analysis of the rise and rise of English as a scientific language seems to make a lot of sense, although I am slightly surprised there was no real mention of the parallel rise of the internet, which it would seem would inevitably reinforce the spread of a single scientific language.

This is a subject I've never seen written about, and one that I think will fascinate many working scientists - particularly, perhaps those who have to work in English despite it not being a first language. But it isn't a book I can wholeheartedly recommend for the general reader.

Review by Brian Clegg


  1. The universal language will be Esperanto.

    1. Esperanto (and the arguably more logical Ido) are covered at some length in the book. But there is no doubt that currently the universal language of science (which is what the books is about) is English with over 90% of scientific papers now published in it.