"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe," wrote Einstein, "is that it's comprehensible". Comprehensible to scientists, anyway -- most of the rest of us abandoned the scientific method back in high school, along with the periodic table and pickled frogs. Today the general reader needs the mediation of a thoughtful, lucid guide to make sense of it all. Luckily there are plenty of good science writers around , and even some scientists, who have a gift for communicating their stories with childlike wonder intact. These authors can not only make the universe comprehensible to us, but enchanting.
Good scientific prose is more than a minor literary genre; it's genuine magic realism. The Faber Book of Science has a cast of characters no less colourful than those from the pens of the Latin American fantasy-weavers: black holes and battling ants, quarks and quasars, and a man who mistook his wife for a hat.
"Like any anthology," editor and Oxford professor John Carey writes in the introduction, "it is meant to entertaining, intriguing, lendable-to-friends and good-to-read as well..." Readers need not worry about mental meltdowns. Carey spent five years reading "many books and articles, ostensibly for a popular readership, which start out intelligibly and fairly soon hit a quagmire of fuse-blowing technicalities, from which no non-scientist could emerge intact." These, along with the articles he felt he'd never read twice, were "instantly rejected."
The result is a guided tour through the best articles, essays, and memoirs of scientists and science writers, from the Renaissance on. The chapters are brief: Carey is following the toxin principle of anthologies -- a trace amount of a technical topic is a stimulant, anything more is deadly. The book begins with a few pages from Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical notebooks, and then we alight on Galileo's reflections, and just as quickly are into Anton Von Leeuwenhoek descriptions of the tiny "animalcules" discovered by microscope in a drop of water. Carey inserts biographical information and other asides throughout each chapter, breaking up the material and giving continuity to the journey. He's along as a guide, nudging the reader's interest and sharing in the discovery of the unexpected.
Some of the selections seem a little odd (Freud seems out of place here, as does Orville Wright). And why the inert gas of Isaac Asimov, at the expense of better storytellers of science -- Timothy Ferris, Dianne Ackermann, or Heinz Pagels? Still, The Faber Book of Science will have you digging in for weeks for the many little treasures within, particularly the selections from the past quarter-century. In Italo Calvino's The Gecko's Belly, the author constructs a meditation on a tiny creature that slowly moves from literary-scientific inquisitiveness into a Zenlike awe. And in an excerpt from Primo Levi's writings, we follow the progress of a carbon atom:
"It was caught high by the wind, flung down on the earth, lifted ten kilometers high. It was breathed in by a falcon, descending into its precipitous lungs, but did not penetrate it s thick bood and was expelled. It dissolved three times in the water of the sea, once in the waster of a cascading torrent, and again was expelled. It travelled with the wind for eight years: now high, now low, on the sea and among the clouds, over forests, deserts, and limitless expanses of ice; then it stumbled into capture and the organic adventure..."
Magic realism indeed!
John Updike has his famous "Cosmic Gall" here, a poem about subatomic particles called neutrinos. Every second, hundreds of billions of these neutrinos pass through each square inch of our bodies, coming from above during the day and from below at night, when the sun is shining on the other side of the earth.
Neutrinos, they are very small./
They have no charge and have no mass/
And do not interact at all./
The earth is just a silly ball/
To them, through which they simply pass,/
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall/
Or photons through a sheet of glass.... /
"Not many poets have written about atomic particles", Carey approvingly adds.