The Faber Book of (old) Science

I’ve quite a collection of science writing anthologies, old and new, but this one was a bit of a landmark in its time – science writing was beginning to be seen as an interesting area of trade publishing. The new stuff, though, was largely ignored in this prestigious collection of classic extracts – as I pointed out at the time. Looking back, with the benefit of once doing an anthology for Faber myself (poems of science, since you ask), I imagine this was partly to do with cheapness: much easier to turn a profit on an anthology if most of the contents are out of copyright.

Incidentally, the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, published under Richard Dawkins’ name in 2008, does have a good deal more from more recent writers, though still with a preponderance of scientists with literary inclinations and, as it happens, still nothing from any of the writers I recommend in this little review…

He has left out Stephen Hawking, but then John Carey does say that he chose his 100-odd pieces to make science intelligible to the general reader. If the man who joked about the mind of God helped this collection along, it was by reminding publishers about the public’s appetite for recondite scientific ideas rather than being particularly successful in putting them across. How successful has Carey been at finding other people who do it better, for this rough-and-ready chronicle of science and technology since Leonardo?

It is otiose to quibble with individual items in a 500-page anthology. There are lots of good ones, of course. Some are very familiar, like T H Huxley on a piece of chalk, J B S Haldane on being the right size or Primo Levi on carbon – probably the most striking piece of writing here. Some are welcome reminders of fine work often forgotten: the great Spanish neurologist Cajal and the British physiologist Sherrington stand out here. And there are the curiosities and diversions that any marketable anthology needs for Boxing-Day browsers.

But there are two respects in which the overall selection strikes me as awry. One is the excessive regard for first hand testimony from discoverers. Carey was a fine editor of the earlier Faber Book of Reportage, and has imported some of the same principles here. In spite of his schooling in the subtleties of story-telling – or perhaps because of it – the Merton Professor of English at Oxford has an exaggerated respect for accounts of science that lean toward a naive realism. He seems to think that scientists-as-writers have a direct access to “the facts” that purely literary authors lack.

Whatever the philosophical merits of this position, it produces an excess of natural historical writing, of keen-eyed observers recording the facts of nature, perhaps with the aid of telescope or microscope. There is much less that conveys the development of science as a struggle to make sense of phenomena, to formulate ideas that account for what is seen. This first hand fixation leads to some questionable selections. A Tribune squib from George Orwell on toads in spring is merely an eccentric choice. More seriously, we hear from Richard Feynman, perhaps the finest expositor of modern physics, on what it was like to watch the first atomic bomb go off rather than any deep scientific principle. Both The Nature of Physical Law and QED are better books than the two anecdotal collections Feynman produced with his friend Ralph Leighton. They should have been represented here.

Carey’s first-person fixation also produces a picture of science as exclusively the work of inspired individuals, their lives punctuated by extraordinary moments of insight. There is no sense of the collectivity of scientific practice, although it has been portrayed well by a number of non-academic writers as well as by sociologists and historians of science. Worse news, for an anthology of good writing, is that the scientist who makes a new observation or fashions a new theory is not always the best person to explain what it means – as Carey points out in the case of Einstein’s relativity. Yet he has generally chosen to ignore people who may not have been on the spot but have offered as good, or better, accounts of the science.

This leads to the second curiosity about this selection. There is surprisingly little here on contemporary science. Today, new work is being written about better, and by more professional writers, than at any time in history. Indeed, that goes some way to justify Carey’s claim that science writing is “a new kind of late twentieth century literature”.

Yet little of this work actually appears. Although Carey speaks of a new generation, Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins are its only significant representatives. Neither is exactly youthful. There is nothing from the real new generation, a mix of scientifically trained journalists and scientists with literary inclinations who are setting the contemporary standard.

Much of Carey’s collection is welcome, but I’d like to put a second volume next to it, with contributions from the likes of John Barrow, Timothy Ferris, Stephen S Hall, Ed regis, James Gleick, Alan Lightman, John Casti, Gary Taubes or Lynn Margulis. Not a word from any of them here. Maybe this is why Carey believes that Isaac Asimov, a man who wrote far too much far too fast, is the century’s “most masterly, lucid and imaginative explainer of science to the common reader.” Maybe this is why I fear that the young people who Carey says he would like to woo back to science will find many of his selections pedestrian. (1996)

(The Faber Book of Science, edited by John Carey, 1996).

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