The Art of Science Writing

April 24, 2010 § Leave a comment


Science: A History 1543 – 2001 (Gribbin, John)

What, if I may ask, is the point of Pop Science?

Isaac Newton, by William Blake (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mind you, I used to be a big fan of the genre not a long time ago. I would hover around the Science section of bookshops and be attracted to every coffee-table glossy that claimed to demystify some esoteric scientific topic or the other. This, I now realize, was my quest for a royal road to geometry – or chaos theory, or astrophysics, or Godel’s Theorem, or quantum electrodynamics – fascinating subjects all, and ones that I wanted to be acknowledged an expert on, without – and this is crucial – without having to exert a lot of effort. The Pop Science writer, bless his soul,  has put in the hard yards on my behalf: he has spoken to the right people, leafed through every paper published on the subject, and in a few cases, has got himself academically qualified in the field. All I need to do is to chew his pre-digested cud and derive wholesome nutrition from it.

As I said, I used to indulge wholeheartedly in this pursuit, until I realized that I wasn’t getting respect from the people I wanted respect from – those who actually knew a thing or two about the topics in which I was trying to be an expert. I began attempting to read the books referred to in the bibliography section of the Pop Science books, and this I found to be extremely difficult work, but rewarding, nevertheless, whenever I’ve been able to plough through to the end. As such, I haven’t read much Pop Science for the last few years.

But while that is my own personal journey, I must hasten to add that Pop Science DOES have a use, one more socially desirable than to make lazy people appear smart in a superficial manner. It is to inspire impressionable teenagers to get involved in science, to willingly suspend  and even lose themselves in that intoxicating state of mind that is the scientific temper, comprising, in equal parts, curiosity, scepticism and a love for truth and symmetry. The Pop Science writer’s only worthwhile mission is to make the act of ‘doing science’, or in Richard Feynman‘s words, the ‘pleasure of finding things out‘, look cool to a group of people who are primed to pursue coolness to the exclusion of all else.

John Gribbin wrote In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat in 1984, a book in which he explained quantum mechanics to lay readers by means of a blow-by-blow account that was gripping and magical. He brought to vivid life the paradoxes, the anguish, the thought experiments, and, of course, the science, as it happened. At once, a generation of teenagers grew up excited by quantum physics, inspired by Heisenberg, in awe of Einstein, and eager to BE the next Feynman. This was the Gribbin I loved and admired.

The current book under review is simultaneously more – and less – ambitious. More ambitious, in the sense that he has a far broader canvas – he attempts here to tell the story of all of physical science, and over a time period of 450 years. Less ambitious, alas, because it seems an exercise in checking the boxes, ensuring that all big-ticket events are covered, and enough anecdotal vignettes supplied from time to time, to keep the reader from nodding off.

Exhaustive as the book undoubtedly is (and here I can only quibble about the glossing over of mathematics, and the omission of advances in the medical sciences), I was left underwhelmed by the lack of an overarching theme that could stitch together the narrative into an inspiring saga. To imbue with the spirit of science is to do more than merely to excite; to excite itself is more than merely to hold one’s attention by means of biographical anecdotes. What it needs is a nail-biting story – a mystery that readers would find truly puzzling, protagonists that they could identify with, struggles and sacrifices that they would find heart-rending, and an eventual triumph they could savour as their own.

This, therefore, is neither a textbook, for lack of depth, nor an evangelical work, for lack of an inspiring theme. It is a long and complicated recital of dates and events, but it isn’t epic poetry. This, unfortunately, is Pop Science without much of a point.

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