This book is edited (with introduction) by John Carey, and that ought to trigger a few responses in people who have been around. Professor Carey is an all-purpose media intellectual, much in demand for elevated discussions of more or less anything. He was formerly Professor of English at Oxford, and here he is guiding us around 'science'. I recall the answer of John W Campbell Jr when asked what was the place of science fiction in English literature. Campbell responded that science fiction is a genre taking in everything from the primal egg to the heat-death of the universe, so to try to place it within English literature is a bit of an odd question.
Carey clearly views this anthology as 'literature' rather than as some kind of reference book. On the one hand he gave thought to the sequencing of the selections, and I may say I read the volume from cover to cover as sequenced. On the other hand one of his main criteria for inclusion is that the pieces that qualify should be well enough written for him to want to read them twice. This is where I start to have problems with his approach. Given the significance of most of the subject-matter, my own reason for wanting to read any given piece twice would be that I had not understood it the first time. I am only too grateful for the quality of readability, but when confronted with relativity or quantum theory or black holes or seismology or nuclear fusion or fractals or genetics I can only find a preoccupation with literary aspects to be the most despicable footling. That said, the literary quality is pretty good, as of course one would expect. This is obviously a book for amateurs not for professionals, and speaking as an amateur I felt helped to retain my fumbling but determined grasp on, say, particle physics as well as getting a genuinely better perception of, say, chaos theory and natural selection. Readers inclined to a religious outlook will probably not find much to bolster it here, and whether that represents some bias on the part of the editor or whether it is simply in the nature of the case I am unable to judge.
It's a clever production by a very clever editor, but I'm still suspicious of him because of his background. I have never really been convinced that reading books in one's own mother tongue amounts to a respectable academic subject. So far as I could tell, the way they got around this perception at Oxford was to make the subject artificially difficult, demanding a ludicrous amount of reading and assessing the products of their grisly ergastulum on their capacity to make clever-clever observations provided these stayed within the party line adopted by a fearsome and condescending thought-police. That anyone who had gone through this particular mill retained any literary sensibility whatsoever seems to me as good an argument for a benevolent deity as I have encountered. Professor Carey is clearly alive to this problem, but after my own struggles with establishing Greek and Latin texts, or with the subtleties of vowel-gradation in the Indo-European languages, I don't like being lumped in with his lot as an 'arts' graduate, standing in the same relationship to the larger sciences as they do. There are sciences and sciences. The one I studied was a minor one, the contemplation of the structure of the cosmos is ultimately what it's all about. How good a grasp of it I shall ever get I don't know, but this book has not hindered that purpose for all the 'literary' fooling that goes with it.
I see that Professor Carey has written a book called 'The Intellectuals and the Masses'. I don't have the courage to read it, but I think I might have been able to invent the title if I had not been told of it. I wish him a long and productive life. It may be that we shall yet see some Faber Book of Introductions, edited (with introduction) by John Carey.