The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Edited by Richard Dawkins, this collection of extracts was created with a specific goal: to showcase examples of “good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers” – and only from within the last century. Dawkins chose to limit his own involvement to the introductory prefaces to each extract, but in these he warmly introduces many figures who the interested layperson, like myself, may never have heard of, and succeeds in making crystal clear his admiration even for those with whom he may not agree professionally.

The material covers a wide breadth of study, touching base with scientists from all avenues of interest and grouped only within these four sections: What Scientists Study, Who Scientists Are, What Scientists Think, and What Scientists Delight In. There are many treasures, and rare passages which I found heavy going; but I’m not going to say more, other than by presenting a few folded corners from my own enjoyment of their words.

Fruitful intellectual activity of the cleverest people draws its strength from the common knowledge which all of us share. Beyond a certain point clever people can never transcend the limitations of the social culture they inherit. When clever people pride themselves on their own isolation, we may well wonder whether they are very clever after all. Our studies in mathematics are going to show us that whenever the culture of a people loses contact with the common life of mankind and becomes exclusively the plaything of a leisure class, it is becoming a priestcraft. It is destined to end, as does all priestcraft, in superstition. To be proud of intellectual isolation from the common life of mankind and to be disdainful of the great social task of education is as stupid as it is wicked. It is the end of progress in knowledge. No society, least of all so intricate and mechanized a society as ours, is safe in the hands of a few clever people.

Lancelot Hogben, from “Mathematics for the Million”

May I allow myself at this point a personal reflection? In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, discovered by the New Zealand mathematician, Roy Kerr, provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This “shuddering before the beautiful”, this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound. Indeed, everything I have tried to say in this connection has been stated more succinctly in the Latin mottos:

Simplex sigillum veri – The simple is the seal of the true.

and

Pulchritudo splendor veritatis – Beauty is the spendor of truth.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, from “Truth and Beauty”

Carbon dioxide, that is, the aerial form of carbon of which we have up till now spoken: this gas which constitutes the raw material of life, the permanent store upon which all that grows draws, and the ultimate destiny of all flesh, is not one of the principle components of air but rather a ridiculous remnant, an “impurity”, thirty times less abundant that argon, which nobody even notices. The air contains 0.03 per cent; if Italy was air, the only Italians fit to build life would be, for example, the fifteen thousand inhabitants of Milazzo in the province of Messina. This, on the human scale, is ironic acrobatics, a juggler’s trick, an incomprehensible display of omnipotence-arrogance, since from this ever renewed impurity of the air we come, we animals and we plants, and we the human species, with our four billion discordant opinions, our millenniums of history, our wars and shames, nobility and pride. In any event, our very presence of the planet becomes laughable in geometric terms: if all of humanity, about 250 million tons, were distributed in a layer of homogeneous thickness on all the emergent lands, the “stature of man” would not be visible to the naked eye; the thickness one would obtain would be around sixteen thousandths of a millimeter.

Primo Levi, from “The Periodic Table”

Man was certainly not the goal of evolution, which evidently had no goal. He was not planned, in an operation wholly planless. He is not the ultimate goal in a single constant trend towards higher things, in a history of life with innumerable trends, none of them constant, and some toward the lower rather than the higher. Is his place in nature, then, that of a mere accident, without significance? The affirmative answer that some have felt constrained to give is another example of the “nothing but” fallacy. The situation is as badly misrepresented and the lesson as poorly learned when man is considered nothing but an accident as when he is considered as the destined crown of creation. His rise was neither insignificant nor inevitable. Man did originate after a tremendously long sequence of events in which both chance and orientation played a part. Not all the chance favoured his appearance, none might have, but enough did. Not all the orientation was in his direction, it did not lead unerringly human-ward, but some of it came this way. The result is the most highly endowed organisation of matter that has yet appeared on the earth – and we certainly have no good reason to believe there is any higher in the universe. To think that this result is insignificant would be unworthy of that high endowment, which includes among its riches a sense of values.

George Gaylord Simpson, from “The Meaning of Evolution”

“I can’t believe it,” I said. “I just can’t believe it.”

“By God, you’d better believe it!” shouted Gray. “Here it is, Right here!” His voice went up into a howl. I joined him. In that 110-degree heat we began jumping up and down. With nobody to share our feelings, we hugged each other, sweaty and smelly, howling and hugging in the heat-shimmering gravel, the small brown remains of what now seemed almost certain to be parts of a single hominid skeleton lying all around us.

“We’ve got to stop jumping around,” I finally said. “We may step on something. Also, we’ve got to make sure.”

“Aren’t you sure, for Christ’s sake?”

“I mean, suppose we find two left legs. There may be several individuals here, all mixed up. Let’s play it cool until we can come back and make absolutely sure that it all fits together.”

We collected a couple of pieces of jaw, marked the spot exactly and got into the blistering Land-Rover for the run back to camp. On the way we picked up two expedition geologists who were loaded down with rock samples they had been gathering.

“Something big,” Gray kept saying to them. “Something big. Something big.”

“Cool it,” I said.

But about a quarter of a mile from camp, Gray could not cool it. He pressed his thumb on the Land-Rover’s horn, and the long blast brought a scurry of scientists who had been bathing in the river. “We’ve got it,” he yelled. “Oh, Jesus, we’ve got it. We’ve got The Whole Thing!”

That afternoon everyone in camp was at the gully, sectioning off the site and preparing for a massive collecting job that ultimately took three weeks. When it was done, we had recovered several hundred pieces of bone (many of them fragments) representing about forty percent of the skeleton of a single individual. Tom’s and my original hunch had been right. There was no bone duplication.

But a single individual of what? On preliminary examination it was very hard to say, for nothing quite like it had ever been discovered. The camp was rocking with excitement. That first night we never went to bed at all.

Donald C. Johanson & Maitland A. Edey, from “Lucy”

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