Skip to main content

The Quotable Darwin - Charles Darwin, Ed. Janet Browne ***

There's something rather satisfying about a nice, chunky book of quotations. I treasure my Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, for example. However, single author collections can be quite a struggle to get through. 

I've already seen both The Quotable Feynman and The Ultimate Quotable Einstein for two of the great names of physics, each of them rather good at profound sound bites and witty interjections. But also in each case, even though I like the author's writing, I found it difficult to get too enthusiastic, as it's neither a book you can read from end to end, nor one where you can necessarily find a useful quote on a particular topic, as is the case with the dictionary of quotations. And any concerns I have about those two are probably increased here because, though Darwin was, without doubt, an accomplished writer, the Victorian style rarely makes for a pithy quote.

As I'd recently seen (in the excellent Inferior, for example) some sharp criticism of Darwin for his remarks about women, the first thing I tried was to find some of these, and already the format let me down. There is quite a long index - but 'Women' does not appear in it (nor does 'Female'). Admittedly I was helped out by the arrangement into sections - so looking through the Intellect sub-section of 'Mankind' I did find what I was looking for. This section also led with a good example of why it might be best not to look for consistency in Darwin. The first quote is 'There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties' and the second (just 69 pages away in the same book) is 'There can be note doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense.'

Dipping into the book is certainly a quick, if disjointed, way to get an improved picture of Darwin, the man - whether it's appreciation of his disgust for slavery and hope for its abolition, or to get a more nuanced view of his attitude to religion and creationism. But I think I would get significantly more from a well-written scientific biography. This collection of quotes is incredibly useful for anyone who regularly writes about Darwin, but I'm not sure it's something that has a place on every science-lover's shelves.

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…