The Loom

Big Science and Big Science Books

Today’s issue of Newsday has my review of Sea of Glory, Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the first great scientific U.S. expedition. The review gets pretty harsh towards the end, despite the fact that the book is an exquisitely researched narrative of a fascinating subject. (What makes it particularly fascinating is that the expedition’s leader, Charles Wilkes, was practically insane.) It’s this very potential that got me so frustrated. Here’s a grand story about a journey to the ends of the Earth, about megalomaniacs, about the dawn of a great nation, about the birth of modern science, about the tragic dimension of empire, and yet Philbrick writes about all this in a style that’s maddeningly pedestrian and dutiful. At one point he tries to offer some penetrating psychological insight into Wilkes’s psyche by quoting from the pop-psychology book Emotional Intelligence. It was one of those moments when you have to tell yourself not to throw the book against the wall.

I may have such a strong reaction because I’ve read so many disappointing books on science. There are plenty of cases in which a solid, straight-ahead journalistic style is the right form for a science book to take. But there are also many opportunities in science to creat literary jewels, and generally those opportunities are squandered. For some reason this is considered a normal state of affairs. Critics rarely hold science writing to the same standards as, say, literary fiction. If a novel was riddled with the flat-footed cliches that plague so many science books, the critics would skewer it. On this score, it seems, most of the reviews of Sea of Glory give it a pass.

Comments

  1. #1 roger
    January 5, 2004

    I agree 100%. One of the malign effects of giving bad popular science writing a pass is that it drowns out good, or great, popular science writing. David Quammen is, I think, a writer to put up with any of his novelistic peers — Franzen, David Foster Wallace — but how many people have noticed that The Song of the Dodo is a masterpiece?

    Somebody should put out a a library of science classics, with nice intros, much like the mini biographies that are being edited by James Atlas. It could start with Michael Faraday’s Lecture on a Candle (which Wittgenstein viewed as a model of discursive prose), include Thomas (and Julian) Huxley, Haldane, Medawar, perhaps Polya’s book on problem solving.

    I’m halfway through Quammen’s maneaters book, and again, I’m in awe at the sheer energy…

  2. #2 Richard
    January 5, 2004

    Science is so often driven by people with passions every bit as powerful as in the artistic world, yet few writers are able to recreate these passions. Great science usually involves incredible determination, tremendous egos and a little luck. All things that make great human stories. Too often, scientists are portrayed as a breed apart, whose thoughts are far beyond the average human’s.

    That is why The Double Helix or any of Feynman’s books are wonderful. They capture the playful egotism found so often in the most important scientists. Just as I can enjoy a book about the Olympics or a military operation, even though I will never participate in either, it should be possible to enjoy the story of great science. The best science writers accomplish this, but, as Sturgeon’s Law predicts, so many are doomed to fail.

  3. #3 Tippi
    January 5, 2004

    I’m glad to see this topic addressed. I’m already eager to find the books mentioned in the comments.