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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.



Review by Brian Clegg


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