Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century - Hugh Aldersey-Williams ***

I first came across this book in an interview that the author gave in which he said about the readers of popular science: 'There’s no point in making ultra-subtle points about how science is done, you have to bang them over the head with it.' I thought this was an unfair comment and suggested I'd give his books a miss. The author pointed out this was petty, so I've taken the plunge into Sir Thomas Browne, and I'm glad I did - though it isn't a book that worked all the way through for me.

Browne was a seventeenth century man with a strong interest in science in the widest medieval sense of being 'knowledge of the world'. It's equally possible to regard him as a dilettante or someone with an enormous appetite for finding things out, who was prepared to question some of the beliefs of his day to an unusual degree.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams comes close to a kind of hero worship of the man, admiring his writing style, his thoughtfulness about the world around him, and his ability to challenge false beliefs without any of the nastiness that seems common in the approach of Richard Dawkins and others today. This is put across to us in an interesting style, which covers major areas that Browne considered, such as medicine, animals, plants and science, but also meanders pleasantly around topics, sometimes giving us Aldersey-Williams' modern attempt to follow up Browne's often faint trails, and even at one point adopting the ancient style of a conversation with the dead man.

I'll be honest, I struggle to agree with Aldersey-Williams' enthusiasm for Browne's writing, which to the modern eye seems pompous and overblown. The view you take can by identified from your reaction to a quotation that the author gives as an 'especially fine paragraph.' In it, Browne, giving proverb-like advice, is telling the reader to seize the day. But what he says is:
Since thou hast an alarum in thy Breast, which tells thee thou hast a Living Spirit in thee above two thousand times in an hour; dull not away thy Days in slothful supinity & the tediousness of doing nothing. To strenuous Minds there is an inquietude in over quietness, and no laboriousness in labour; and to tread a mile after the slow pace of a Snail, or the heavy measures of the Lazy of Brazilia, were a most tiring Pennance, and worse than a Race of some furlongs at the Olympicks.
There's no doubt Browne was not a man who liked to use five words where 20 would do, or short ones where he could go polysyllabic. (He was, indeed, a great coiner of new words, including electricity, medical and precarious.) While I can see there is something dramatic in Browne's style, and some would love it, it's not one that I can find anything but hard work to read.

The sections of the book itself were very variable. The two on animals and plants, which primarily reflected Browne's descriptions of what he met in his native Norfolk, were too much collections of descriptions and suffered accordingly, but others were far more interesting, particularly when Aldersey-Williams compares Browne's attitudes to scepticism to the modern day heavy scientific approach. The author is rightly down on the unpleasantly personal and belittling approach that Dawkins takes to adversaries, though he is also unnecessarily negative about Simon Singh, who I have never found to make his points in a heavy preaching style.

In many ways I'm all in favour of Browne's more amenable attitude, to argue without insult in a gentlemanly way, and I applaud Aldersey-Williams' support for it. (Not one, I suspect, that would have been popular with Newton.) I think the author goes too far towards the 'it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere' point of view, but there is not doubt that we would encourage more people to take a positive view of science and scientists if some of the discipline's representatives weren't so ferocious in their dogma.

All in all, it's interesting to find out more about this little remembered man. He might not have done much to further science, but his interest in the world around him can feel infectious across the centuries, and more of his supportive, positive approach would be a welcome addition to the skeptical (with a K) movement. At its best, Aldersey-Williams' writing is enjoyable and thoughtful, though the interest did not remain consistent throughout. The result might not have been a total success, but it is refreshing to see a book in which the author tries to do something different.

Review by Brian Clegg

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