Skip to main content

Litmus (SF) – Ra Page (Ed.) ***

A number of authors have attempted the difficult task of writing fiction that is used to explain science and it almost always fails. It’s just incredibly difficult to do well. Either the fiction isn’t good enough, or the science isn’t good enough – or the fiction is so obscure that it simply puts the reader off.
I confess, when I saw this book and got excited about reviewing it, I misunderstood what it was. The subtitle is ‘short stories from modern science’ so I thought it would be like Tania Hershman’s excellent collection of short stories The White Road, which takes science news as first seed of an idea for a story, but then provides a straightforward piece of fiction or science fiction. That works wonderfully well. But the approach that this book takes is much more directed to getting a scientific message across, and it suffers because of it.
What Litmus provides (and this is why it has made it into this site) is a series of short stories that are, in essence, historical fiction based on history of science. Each typically describes a key scientific moment, or someone being influenced by a key moment in scientific discovery. Each story is then followed by an essay that explains the significance of that moment and/or person in science.
In theory this could have worked very well, but I found most of the stories stiff and not particularly interesting reads. Where they put information across, it seemed forced – and when they didn’t, there didn’t seem a lot of point in the story. Then you would get the rather worthy essay, often unnecessarily deferential to the fiction it supported, which turned the whole thing into something that seemed like a school exercise rather than either a collection of good short stories or useful popular science.
There were some good stories – I’d pick out Tania Hershman’s, inspired by the glowing jellyfish gene. There were some mediocre stories, and some that seemed trivially pretentious (Stella Duffy’s piece, for example). Just to take one specific example in a bit more detail, there is a story set by Michael Jecks called Special Theory. Set in Bern, where Einstein worked in the Swiss patent office, it is an interaction between an unhappy British physicist, who is an Einstein fanboy, and a waitress. It sort of works as a story, though it’s a bit plonking in its conclusion. But I wasn’t comfortable with the historical context (several of the ‘facts’ about Einstein are dubious) nor, for that matter, that a physics professor would regard Einstein like a teenager looks to a pop star. The professor would know very well that Einstein’s contribution in special relativity was not the unique, light bulb moment he seems to suggest, and for that matter that Einstein was only one contributor to the development of the theory, not the sole, solitary genius behind it. Without doubt the most important contributor – but not working in isolation.
Overall, then, yet another attempt to marry fiction and popular science that has ended up on the rocks of incompatibility. A brave attempt – and I do still believe this ought to be possible. But it is clearly very difficult to do well.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…