Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Science writing

For my daily bread and butter I read, and try to fix, an awful lot of less than elegant science.

In the Guardian, Ian McEwan, in an expanded version of a talk given at the London School of Economics to mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, explains why the writing is as important as the science:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. There has never been a science book quite like it. Drawing on the work of a handful of scientists, it bound together genetics and Darwinian natural selection in a creative synthesis that amazed even those few who were already familiar with the concepts. It hastened a sea change in evolutionary theory, it affected profoundly the teaching of biology, it enticed an enthusiastic younger generation into the subject, and spawned a huge literature, and eventually a new discipline — memetics. At the same time, and this is the measure of its achievement, it addressed itself without condescension to the layman. It did so provocatively, and with style.

"Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose, we are cast aside. But genes are the denizens of geological time: genes are forever."

It is a lovely phrase, "shuffled into oblivion", and the analogy with cards — the hand being the information, the cards themselves the genes — is apt, economical and informative: true eloquence. In the years since then, Dawkins' work might be seen as one extended invitation addressed to us non-scientists to enjoy science, to indulge ourselves at a feast of human ingenuity. Just as we can sit around the kitchen table and discuss operas, movies or novels without being composers, directors or novelists, so we can engage with this subject, one more sublime achievement of accumulated creativity. We can make it "ours" just as we might the music of Bach or Bill Evans.

Ian McEwan further proposes a canon of science literature; accuracy is not the most important criterion.

We need to remember the various discarded toys of science — the humours, the four elements, phlogiston, the ether and, more recently, protoplasm. Modern chemistry was born out of the futile ambitions of alchemy. Scientists who hurl themselves down blind alleys perform a service — they save everyone a great deal of trouble. They may also refine techniques along the way, and offer points of resistance, intellectual cantilevers, to their contemporaries.

I say all this somewhat dutifully, because there actually is a special pleasure to be shared, when a scientist or science writer leads us towards the light of a powerful idea which in turn opens avenues of exploration and discovery leading far into the future, binding many different phenomena in many different fields of study. Some might call this truth.
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