Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins

I never took interest in science during my school years but as a result of promiscuous reading for many years now, I have developed interest in many subjects and science is one of them. This explains why I bought Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins, an anthology of articles, written by prominent scientists, on various aspects of science and scientists.

Despite being a science book (a subject many dread), it doesn’t put you off with pedagogies of school science textbooks. The book mayn’t be to science what William Dalrymple’s books are to history – converting pedagogy into page turner. But the articles are surely absorbing (expect some that are too data-oriented) and introduce you to scientific subjects in a manner that makes you want to read the next article, bursting the old belief that writing is not for scientists.

Each article starts with an introduction of the author scientist of the article. And, as Dawkins is a scientist himself, he knows (or knew) many of the author scientists personally, having interacted with them during student life and later, and writes about various facets of their personalities in his introductions bringing to life the men behind the articles. However, sometimes the introductions become too admiring of author scientists and Dawkins starts appearing like a child in their awe rather than a writer giving his observations.

The articles are of varied types: some full of dry details (a little off putting); some academic discussions with conflicting scientific thoughts and some human emotions. Here is an excerpt. The author, Oliver Sacks, discusses his uncle, Uncle Tungsten, and his obsession with tungsten wire, used as filaments of lightbulbs.

“We had called him Uncle Tungsten for as long as I remember, because he manufactured lightbulbs with filament of fine tungsten wire. His firm was called Tungstalite, and I often visited him in his old factory in Farringdon. During my visits to the factory, Uncle Dave would teach me about metals with little experiments. I knew that mercury, that strange liquid metal, was incredibly heavy and dense. Even lead floated on it, as my uncle showed me by floating a lead metal in a bowl of quicksilver. But then he pulled out a small grey bar from his pocket, and to my amazement, this sank immediately to the bottom.”

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