Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. The universal language will be Esperanto.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    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.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…