Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

July 20, 2008

Modern Science Writing

Filed under: books, culture, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:21 am

I finished reading The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins.  I can’t think of another book that I so enjoyed reading.  It is an anthology, and therefore suffers from uneven tone and style.  The upshot is that there are a few authors I would like to read more of, such as Lancelot Hogben, Lee Smolin, and of course Carl Sagan.  It also convinced me not to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time of which there is a brief selection in the book.

I think the book is best enjoyed in small doses.  This sensibility comes from the fact that one should be thinking when reading it, not about the words on the page, but what it says about us, and the universe we live in.  What we are, what we are made of, the indifferent rules that govern us and what the implications are for the limited freedom we do enjoy.  As an thought experiment, try to imagine the life of an individual carbon atom, formed by a nuclear reaction in a star, which just so happened to find itself trapped in limestone on earth.  Imagine further that this atom somehow manages to enter into the carbon cycle where it might become part of you.  Part of your DNA, your hair, your brain.  But a carbon atom’s existence as literally part of you is just less than a blink of an eye in the grand-scale of its experience.  Every atom of your being has some extraordinary tale of natural history.  This is the mind-expanding world one enters as one reads the pages of Modern Science Writing.  How terribly parochial many of our conceptions of the world seem when placed on the canvas of the cosmos.

This is knowledge that deserves to shared, deserves to be contemplated by all mankind.  But when pondering this, there comes another crashing reality of natural history, how I came to read the book.  Perhaps I am guilty of projecting my particular aesthetic onto the rest of humanity, but nevertheless the book costs approximately $35.  The local county library has 1 copy, and there are two holds as I write this.  The point is that the high price of this book has a practical effect, it limits the knowledge to a specialized class.  Kate Muir points out that “the Victorians, with their public lectures and royal societies, gloried in debate and celebrated the thrills of fresh knowledge.”

I don’t think think it is quite fair to critique the popular culture of different eras.  Bemoaning the anti-intellectualism of the masses on one-side without considering how science is presented seems a tad disingenuous.  It is natural that science gets more specialized as it progresses.  A predictable consequence of this is that it may take work to make discoveries fit for mass consumption, as opposed to the Victorian era, where some new discovery could just be presented.

The danger that the discoveries of science become esoteric knowledge of a specialized class is real.  To guard against this, science must be communicated to the public, freely and openly.  Hence we find ourselves in contradiction, as to gain access to the knowledge is comparatively expensive and ignorance is free.  When should science pass into our shared cultural heritage, and should it take as long as some piece of fiction?  Is there some better way to compensate scientific authors for their work?

In closing, I don’t begrudge the money I did pay for the book.  It is extraordinary.  I enjoyed as much to think that it deserves to be integrated as part of our cultural heritage as quickly as possible.  But, this knowledge is constrained by the societal conditions in which it was produced.  Does science exist for the benefit of a specialized class, or is its purpose to enlighten humanity?  In the context of current economic conditions, it rests in the former more than the latter.

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