Skip to main content

The New York Times Book of Science - David Corcoran (Ed.) ***

If I'm honest, I didn't have high hopes for a collection of newspaper articles on science, as, sadly, even the best newspapers tend not to do science very well. And these doubts were born out with the more modern articles here, which were often over-verbose (presumably in an attempt to win the Pulitzer Prize) and not very good at explaining the science. But I had reckoned without the sheer delight of the pre-1950 pieces.

There was no attempt at clever-clever writing back then - it was good, blocky, solid, gum-chewing journalistic writing, with just that little edge of 'gee-whizz, wow!' from a time when science was perhaps more amazing to the general public than it is now.

I won't go through a whole list of favourites, but just point out three to show the kind of thing I mean. The very first entry in the book (by no means the oldest, but they're ordered by topic first before date) is the magnificently titled 'Tut-Ankh-Amen's Inner Tomb Is Opened, Revealing Undreamed-of Splendors, Still Untouched After 3,400 Years' - and gives a detailed, factual account (if missing Carter's famous 'Wonderful things' line) up to and including the small detail of the Queen of the Belgians and Prince Leopold turning up, 'traveling incognito as the Countess de Retry and Count de Rethy' (that went well). It gives an 'I was there' feel to such a famous event.

A second delight for me was the 1933 piece 'Star Birth Sudden, Lemaître Asserts', describing a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (it's just glorious that this got a write up in the New York Times back then) about an early version of what we'd now call the big bang theory. There's a wonderful subhead 'Eddington Brings Gasps' when we are told Sir Arthur said 'I hope it will not shock the experimental physicists too much if I say that we do not accept their observations unless they are confirmed by theory.' We are told that 'The mathematicians gasped a little and Professor de Sitter protested mildly.' They knew how to have a scientific barney back then.

But my favourite of all are reviews on publication of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. The general feeling is one of admiration for Darwin's cleverness and his fascinating arguments... though it is clear to the Times that he is wrong.

In a sense, that's both my favourite and an underlining of what's missing from this book. It would have been so much better if they had cut down on the number of articles reproduced (it's a 500+ page book as it is), perhaps sticking to the much better older ones, and instead accompanied each article by a short update from a modern science writer on what to make of what you've just read. Sometimes the science is still surprisingly spot on, but at other times it was downright wrong - or, as with Darwin, The Times' interpretation of it goes well astray. 

To give the editor his due, David Corcoran has included the Times' most infamous error, when an editorial sarcastically savaged Robert Goddard for not knowing that a rocket would not work in space. Here, at least, there is a correction, issued to mark the Apollo landing - but the way it's worded doesn't really clarify just how much the original article got wrong, and why it was so bad. So even here, some unbiassed commentary would have been far more useful than the correction proves.

There is so much to enjoy here if you are interested in the history of science, and particularly the history of the communication of science, that it's well worth getting hold of a copy... it's just a shame that we didn't get the icing on the cake of a modern commentary on the articles.


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…