on 17 July 2002
The Science of Diskworld II: The Globe
What an enthralling and amazing book! My overall reaction is an incredible jealousy for the writing skills that allow the authors expound such deep understanding of the strengths and foibles of both physics and neuropsychobiology in such an accessible way. In my own way, paltry compared to their powers of exposition, I have been attempting to communicate the same information to my graduate students. I bow my head to them in respect for their ability to display and annihilate some of the myths of science without denigrating science.
The art of teaching is to capture the attention of the student, not, as some believe, to anesthetize them with droning recitation that at best transfers information from the notebook of the professor to the laptop of the student without passing through the brain of either. Pratchett, Stewart, and Cohen achieve their goal by contrasting our world with one that runs on magic (Pratchett's Diskworld series), a series with which the authors expect familiarity. If you do not have this familiarity, you have a treat in store. However, the alternate chapters that deal with the underlying science are well worth reading by themselves. The explain the science clearly and punctuate the exposition with hilarious one liners whose meaning
only deepens upon further introspection.
"We are proud we live in the Information Age. We do, and that is the trouble. If we ever get to the Meaning Age, we'll finally understand where we went wrong."
"Technology isn't science. The two are closely associated: technology helps advance science and science helps to advance technology. Technology is about making things work without understanding them; science is about understanding things without making them work." (This is a point that even the leaders of the American Optical Society failed to grasp a few years ago when they tried, mercifully unsuccessfully, to merge an Optical science society with an optics technology society.)
"Many elderly scientists go through what is sometimes called a 'philosopause'. They stop doing science and take up not very good philosophy instead." (Do I need to name names?)
On a different level, leaving aside the one-liners, the book presents a most accessible and cogent description of the human condition, emphasizing the role of pattern recognition and 'stories' in the daily affairs of man, concepts supported by the body of recent research in the neurosciences. Convincing examples from politics, religion, and social customs abound. Stories/patterns are what permit us to extrapolate into the future from present events.
The book concludes with: "The [stories] we've got have brought us a long way. Plenty of creatures are intelligent but only one tells stories. That's us Pan narrans. And what about Homo sapiens? Yes, we think that would be a very good idea ..."
To which I can only add, Amen, and urge you to read the book and allow yourself to be entertained while novel ideas infiltrate your mind.
Thomas P. Vogl, Ph.D. , 7/17/2002
on 1 May 2002
Forget Genesis, forget the Big Bang. The earth was not created by some higher being (though they themselves might argue otherwise), but by a bunch of roudy wizards from another part of the multiverse.
In the original Science of the Discworld, Earth, or rather 'Roundworld' (but that's not possible, things would fall off the bottom), was created as an annomilous by-product of splitting the 'thaum' - the magical equivalent of the atom, understood by few, abused by many
(especially if it involves fireworks directed at other wizards).
The Science of the Discworld told the story of Roundworld, from creation to destruction, and the scientific princpals behind it. The narrative of Terry Prachett provided a witty medium through which Messieurs Stewart and Cohen could explain to the masses why things are as they are.
But wizards are wizards. Once the initial excitement wore off, the mini-universe got shunted out of the way. After all "It mostly had ice ages, and was less engrossing than an ant farm." But they missed something. Us. More to the point, the elves didn't.
The Discworldian story can be read pretty much as a self-contained novella, but a)that is not the point and b)you miss half the fun. While all the ingredients of Pratchett's humour and 'narrativium' remain, we are gently lead into the seemingly daunting world of science.
It is a world which many would have hoped to have left behind at school, but while we are not spoon-fed the 'children-lies' told at schools, we are not inundated with overly complicated description and jargon. The balance is very difficult to maintain, but Messieurs Stewart and Cohen manage admirably.
It is a study of humanity, from prehistoric origins to modern existence; from birth and through life; exploring why we are here (because a meteorite killed the crabs - see Science of the Discworld I) and why London still isn't a Neandathal encampment. It is the exploration of mind, intelligence, art and science. With gags.
Some previous knowledge of the Discworld setting is needed to give full weight to the book; the development of Hex, for example is covered in numerous novels. However, for the general purposes of the book, one can read it having only read the first Science of the Discworld.
To those who love the Discworld, I'd say that even just the story is worth it, but the sciency bits are not incomprehensible and makes the series better. If this is the first book on Discworld that you've read, I'd say wait until reading #1, or even a couple of the novels themselves (Lords and Ladies is particularly relevant to this one).
Over all, a brilliant read, definitely something to fill some of the gap before the next novel.
on 1 July 2003
Anyone who has read the first Science of Discworld book will immediately be at home in this one.
The Discworld novella from the first book is now extended to involve the wizards meddling in the future of "Roundworld" to battle elves and (bizarrely, for a group led by Archchancellor Ridcully), introduce culture to the planet. In truth, the Discworld parts of the book are actually its weak point, as the story is very slight, and creaks in places in order to fit in with the science - hence 4 stars not 5. On the other hand, Pratchett appears not to understand how to write badly, and Discworld lovers will not be disappointed.
The "real" science part of the book continues the excellent standard set by the first. Stewart and Cohen write clearly and wittily, (even if some times they try a little too hard to be funny), and intoduce a fascinating range of subjects relating to the development of humanity, from cultural ideas such as art and religion, to biology and hard physics, without ever allowing the subject to become too oppressive.
Because of the book's structure, it would make sense to read the first instalment before this one, which should be no chore, as it's even better. Having said that, this book will appeal to anyone with the faintest interest in science, as well as to Discheads everywhere.
on 18 October 2003
This is not a proper Discworld adventure, this should not surprise those that read The Science of Discworld I.
This is a book which through scientific and narrative tries to get the reader to think and to doubt just about anything he's been told. The primary point is that humans are top of the food chain because of *stories*.
The authors make many eye-opening points and whilst they dismiss several things without backing up with proper scientific data they tell the reader that yes, you should be critical of this book as well.
This is more of a philosophical work than a story, I love it.
on 31 July 2003
This book contains a mix of Pratchett's excellent fantasy writing and science from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, with the chapters alternating between the two. Anyone who is interested by science, or enjoys Terry Pratchett's Discworld series would probably like this book, however I found some of the science chapters quite difficult to understand. It is possible to read only every other chapter, thus turning it into a Discworld book, or the chapters in-between, making it a factual science book, however I think it all works well together and uses the Discworld story very cleverly to explain some tough scientific concepts.
on 17 May 2002
I read the original Science of Discworld a while back now and was very impressed at both the story and the scientific commentary. The commentary itself took a very wide scope covering everything from the beginning of the Universe, to Cohen and Stewarts concept of 'extelligence'.
This book takes a slightly different approach. It covers the bit the original left out, i.e. us! The breadth of commentary is still expansive, although there is a strange fascination with Narritvium (you have to be a Terry Pratchett fan!) and it delves into many topics concerning human evolution and development.
Pratchett (as always) tells an interesting story and calls on some of the favourites to add extra depth to the narrative (Granny Weatherwax is mentioned), which holds the story together nicely.
My only complaint would be that due to the constraints on material, the scientific narrative is perhaps laboured somewhat. It is still compelling and insightfull, but when every other chapter talks about 'extelligence' again, it is slightly irritating.
Apart from that, it is an all round excellent book that perhaps only slightly pales compared to the earlier publication.
on 13 July 2003
The first book enthralled me with both the regular Discworld plot that I have admired and loved over the course of Terry Pratchett's novels, but also the science put forward by Mr's Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Perhaps it is because of my preferences in Science itself but I didn't find their explanations of the development of human culture (from this book) as gripping as the ideas behind the creation of the universe and all within (the first book). But despite this it was still interesting to pour through and Terry Pratchett's part in the book is again top class, if a little short. (A bit like this review really) :)
Try enlivening a party with this question: "What's on your mind?" When the babble has become truly raucous, ask another: "How did it get in there?" This book is about those questions, how we came to consider them, and how we've tried to learn to understand them. Interleaving a fantasy story with analyses of scientific thinking about thinking carries certain risks. In the hands of this trio, however, the balance is successfully achieved. Don't be deceived by the name of Terry Pratchett as lead author of this volume. There are wonderful touches of humour in this book, but the basic theme is a serious question: "Who are we, and how did we get to be this way?"
This book repeats a technique used in The Science of Discworld I - two stories in parallel. Discworld is a mirror of Roundworld. The wizards used the computer Hex to construct Roundworld in SoD I. They were shocked at the many differences. Shape was only a beginning. They were confronted with the many ways in which life evolved on Roundworld. They were also forced to reflect on how illogical it seemed for living things to struggle for survival, only to be snuffed out by natural forces. In this sequel, the most advanced life form is going to be confronted with an extinction threat noted in the first book. How to deal with it? It turns out that the best solution is to ally with a great evil force.
Humanity has a strange and illogical heritage, this book tells us. As our forebears learned to cope with changing conditions on the African savannah [or on lake shores or even in the sea] they learned to stand upright, to grasp tools, and to think. This has always seemed like a long, continuous progression of small improvements over time - a process in the best Darwinian gradualist sense. This trio of authors reminds us that this picture is false for humans. After a good start, our ancestors simply halted in place, keeping social, mental and technological progress at bay. The "pause" went on for a hundred millennia. At some point about fifty thousand years ago, all that changed. We went from the "standing ape" to become "the storytelling ape". Thinking and speaking resulted in story-telling.
In trying to understand ourselves and our surroundings, Pratchett and his colleagues see humans as inventing stories for explanations of nature's mysteries. Magic, allied with the element "narrativium", runs the Discworld. On the Roundworld, magic has to be invented. Narratives are the means to bring it about and spread it around. Every human society forges its own stories which are imparted to children as "Make-A-Human Kits". Each society creates explanations which become legends which become religions as one example. While we might dispute whether we've "progressed" argue the authors, there's no question that once the process started, humans changed rapidly resulting in what we see around us today. This "advance", they argue, was not inevitable. While we may not yet understand what prompted this change, we can list alternatives and reject the impossible or implausible. That's why the Discworld parallel story comprises part of this book. It teaches you how to recognise the difference.
To long-standing Discworld fans, this book will be a serious challenge. Unlike the "laugh per page" of Pratchett's other works, he and his colleagues confront the most serious of issues: "where do we come from?" and "where are we going?". Cohen and Stewart, who have dealt these questions elsewhere, and Terry Pratchett, who posits them with every book, have produced a significant contribution in attempting an answer. The use of the parallel story line offers great opportunities for the reader to "step outside the box" and consider life and beliefs from a detached view. Pratchett has long confronted us with ourselves. Adding Cohen and Stewart's scientific and cognitive abilities to his imagination results in a compelling and informative read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
The Science of the Discworld II is another highly readable book from Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen that uses the interaction between the Discworld and the Wizards accidental `roundworld' universe to teach some interesting ideas about evolution. The first book covered physics pretty well, it is good to see that the authors have found something new and interesting to discuss in this latest tome.
The story is set on the Discworld. The Wizards of Unseen University have accidentally created a universe. But this is a universe without magic, where worlds are spherical rather than discs. They set about observing this universe from its creation through to the formation of life. Sometime after the events of the previous books, elves have managed to infest the roundworld and are playing merry hell with the concept of storytelling. It is up to the Wizards to see that things take their natural course, and a certain W. Shakespeare gets born.
Each chapter of the entertaining and usually hilarious Discworld story from Pratchett alternates with a chapter of real science from Stewart and Cohen (both great communicators with wry senses of humour) which explains in our terms what just happened in the Discworld story.
It's well written, easy to follow, introduced me to many scientific concepts that I did not know about previously, and is probably the most educational book I have ever read. So many of the ideas and explanations were firmly lodged in my mind after reading this, many more than remain from my student days, when I was supposed to be studying this kind of thing! (But which I didn't really study too hard because I spent most of my time reading Terry Pratchett books...)
It's an excellent book, one that I highly recommend. 5 stars unreservedly.
on 11 August 2006
I like Pratchett, and I like science, and I liked the first SODW book. However, this one doesn't weave the two strands quite so elegantly, and to some extent, the discworld part could quite easily have been dropped altogether - it's a bit lame by Pratchet's standards. The science this time round leans more towards sociology/anthropology with the concept dominating being that of 'homo narritavans' rather than sapiens - the story telling ape. This is a good tack to take, and they explore a neuro-semantics type view of the world - that we constrain and limit our understanding by wrapping ourselves in stories and linguistic prisons that then make it difficult to 'think outside the box'. All this is true, but just seems to be a little hammy in style; the first book flowed and was a cracking read, this makes the same points in several different ways, and as previously noted by other reviews, can border on paternalism at times.
Still a worthwhile read, however, and for Pratchet fans the discworld bit will add a little entertainment.