Skip to main content

Everyday Practice of Science – Frederick Grinnell ***

This isn’t going to be a normal review. We try to review as many books as we can from those that make the Royal Society Prize for Science Writing longlist. According to the Society, this ‘aims to encourage the writing, publishing and reading of good and accessible popular science books’. On the whole this seems to be their aim. But sometimes, their academic leanings take over and they select a book that, while very good in its own sphere, simply doesn’t fit with that description ‘good and accessible popular science books.’ Such is Everyday Practice of Science.
Taken as what I believe it was intended to be – as a book for the academic audience to appreciate the realities of the scientific method (perhaps as an introductory text for a philosophy of science course) – this is a superb book. It’s concise, it really uncovers the difference between the theoretical scientific method and what actually happens. It has good examples from the real life experience of the author. It says what every working scientist knows – real science only bears a passing resemblance to the idealised ‘scientific method.’
However, taken as a ‘good and accessible popular science book’ it fails spectacularly. The style is mostly dull and lacks any ability to excite the reader. The examples (and I admit this is a personal bias) are almost all from biology, which I personally find less interesting than most subjects. And chapter after chapter there’s a feeling of ‘when is that popular science book going to begin?’ It’s like the whole thing is one of those prefaces by an academic that no one reads before they get onto the real popular science book.
The one exception is the chapter on science and religion. This does have more of a popular science feel, though even here the writing does get a little bogged down.
The fault here is absolutely that of the Royal Society’s committee – the author is blameless, as I’m sure he never thought he was writing a popular science book. The conclusion is simple. If you are starting on a history/philosophy of science course, or have an academic interest in the nature of scientific study, this is a great book you must have. If you are expecting something that the general audience can read with enjoyment, look elsewhere.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under