Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

The Oxford Book for Modern Science Writing

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins and published in 2008, is a collection of modern science writing (post 1900). A review of the collection I read sums it up well: every reader is likely to make a discovery or two in these 80+ excerpts. Even if you are not particularly into science or are intimidated by science writing, you will be surprised at the accessibility of the passages that Dawkins has chosen. There are a few pieces that I felt were a bit clunky and could have been omitted, but that’s a minor point because overall the collection works. Some of my favorite passages that embody interesting ideas that I ‘discovered’ include:

J.B.S. Haldane (1892 – 1964) from On Being the Right Size in “Possible Worlds and Other Essays” [1926]. “Comparative anatomy is largely the story of the struggle to increase surface in proportion to volume.” This is due to the square-cube law.

Colin Blakemore (1944 – ) from The Mind Machine [1988]. Blakemore gives us the hypothetical story of a photon as it leaves the sun eventually bounces off of an old lady’s skin and ends up striking the back of the retina of her grandson.

Niko Tinbergen (1907 – 1988) from Curious Naturalists [1958]. An excerpt from Tinbergen’s scientific autobiography describes Tingbergen performing in-the-wild experiments with digger wasps in the sand dunes of Holland. And, you just want to be there sitting with him.

Alister Hardy (1896 – 1985) from The Open Sea: Its Natural History [1956]. Hardy discovers spooky marine phosphorescence in the night.

Edward O. Wilson (1929 - ) from The Diversity of Life [1992]. Wilson, sits in the jungle thinking: “The isolated mind moves in slow circles and breakouts are rare. Solitude is better for weeding out ideas than for creating them. Genius is the summed production of the many with the names of the few attached for easy recall, unfairly so to other scientists. My mind drifted into the hourless night, no port of call yet chosen.”

James Watson (1928 - ) from Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science [2007]. In this excerpt we get a sampling of Watson’s ‘rules’ like “never be the brightest person in the room” and “work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal.”

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) from What is Life? [1944]. A living system feeds on ‘negative entropy,’ “…attracting, as it were, a stream of negative entropy upon itself, to compensate the entropy increase it produces by living thus to maintain itself on a stationary and fairly low entropy level.”

Primo Levi (1919-1987) from The Periodic Table [1985]. Levi gives an intimate biography of a carbon atom and its function in life: “’Such is life’, although rarely is it described in this manner: an inserting itself, a drawing off to its advantage, a parasitizing of the downward course of energy, from its noble solar form to the degraded one of low-temperature heat. In this downward course, which leads to equilibrium and thus death, life draws a bend and nests in it.”

There is a bit of criticism over the fact that there are only three woman scientists included in the collection. I don’t know enough about the women scientists who might have been eligible for this collection to say if this is fair criticism. I don’t think this should diminish the take away point that there is some very good science writing and that this collection is a great place to start.

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