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VINE VOICEon 11 October 2003
If you're interested in Science, but want to study some new topics, meet some new people, reading about their achievements in their own words or of their contemporaries, then this book cannot be surpassed.
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This is a collection of scientific writings spanning several hundred years from the Renaissance to modern times. John Carey has obviously read very widely to compile the entries, which range over many topics in the physical and biological sciences, and, as befitting a professor of English, he has made his choice not only on the importance of the topic, but also on the quality of the writing. The contributions vary from a single page to several pages; some have extensive commentaries from the editor, others just a note on the source reference. They also vary in style. There are classic pieces of writing about seminal discoveries such as radioactivity, X-rays, and the atomic nucleus, by the discoverers themselves; commentaries by eyewitnesses or later interpreters and biographers; and personal accounts by eminent scientists about how their ideas evolved with time. One of the longest entries of the latter type is Darwin on evolution. There are also occasional lighter pieces, such as the story of how Bird's Custard Powder came to be invented, and even a few contributions, including poems, from well-known literary names who were also amateur observers of nature. I enjoyed reading this collection. It is of course a personal selection and one can think of many other possible entries, but most are well written and informative and their length means that one can dip into the book and read some of them when one has a few minutes to spare.
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on 14 October 1999
Try the article from Rachael Carson on tides, or Isaac Azimov on the planet Earth. You will not be disappointed!
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on 7 February 2015
Great book to dip into now and again. Well written and plenty of surprises for those that want to know more about the science that surrounds us.
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on 27 December 2013
This is the sort of book you can leave on a coffee table or in the lu - handy to have around
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on 21 December 2015
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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.
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