Books of interest

A couple of years ago, Wall street Journal asked me to list some books that influenced me.  Here they are!

John Irving, The Cider House Rules
Like all of John Irving’s novels, The Cider House Rules is both entertaining and sometimes disconcerting, dealing with serious issues – in this case, abortion and incest – but still containing passages that make you laugh out loud.  The film was good, but, as is so often the case, the book is far superior.  The saga of Homer Wells, from his time as the eldest, unwanted resident of the orphanage run by Wilbur Larch through his attempt to break away into the world outside and his inevitable return to take up his destiny as the successor to Dr Larch also manages to embrace social history and evoke a feeling of time and place that is outstanding.  I alternate between picking this and A Prayer For Owen Meany as my favourite novel; this week, it’s The Cider House Rules.

Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (First Edition)
Quite apart from its scientific importance, this is a beautifully written book that begs the question why scientists today are so much less literate, by and large, than their nineteenth century predecessors.  Darwin was an avid reader of his contemporaries, such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens, and it shows.  Just look at the famous opening lines:  “When on board HMS Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South  America  .  .  .  These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species.”  Who can fail to be sucked in and want to read on?  The fact that natural selection is probably the most important scientific discovery of all time is simply a bonus!

Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
I was lucky enough to work as a journalist in London, writing for The Times, in the last years of the old Fleet Street, when articles were still set up in metal type by specialist machine operators, stories were ’phoned in and taken down on manual typewriters, and old hacks with tales of grand expense account lunches could be found in the bars nearby.  To anyone who experienced this faded glory, Scoop, although funny in its own right, gains an exquisite extra flavour by being so very nearly an accurate portrayal of what might have happened to a naive reporter sent out to cover a war in Africa.  Rightly regarded as a classic; but if anyone is unfortunate enough not to know it, imagine Bertie Wooster being sent on such a task.

C. P. Snow, The Search
This is not the best novel ever written – it isn’t even C P Snow’s best novel (even Snow felt that The Search, written in 1934, was “a false start”); but I have a soft spot for the absorbing story of Arthur Miles, from sub-teenage years to his early thirties, which deals with his initial devotion to, and later abandonment of, science.  The early part of the story echoed some of my feelings – although I have never suffered Miles’ disillusionment.  In particular, my first encounter with quantum physics is aptly summed up by some lines from Snow:  “I saw a medley of haphazard facts fall into line and order  .  .  .  ‘But it’s true,’ I said to myself.  ‘It’s very beautiful.  And it’s true.’”  I still feel that way about science.

William Gilbert, On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies (translation of the 1600 edition of De Magnete)
William Gilbert of Colchester was the first person to set out clearly in print the essence of the scientific method of testing hypotheses by experiment.  He also made discoveries in the field of magnetism that were not improved on for two centuries, and he wrote a book on magnetism, published in 1600 when Shakespeare was the toast of London, which is a great read and hugely entertaining even if you care nothing about science.  “In the discovery of hidden things,” he wrote, “stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators  .  .  .  ” and he railed against the “lettered clowns, grammatists, sophists, spouters and the wrong-headed rabble” who attempted to unravel the mysteries of the Universe solely by thinking about them, without doing experiments.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia
The first great scientific book written in English, beautifully illustrated (many of the drawings were by Hooke’s friend Christopher Wren) and easily accessible for the layman.  Samuel Pepys got an early copy and sat up reading it until 2 am, writing in his diary that it was “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.”  Hooke not only described the microscopic world, but also astronomy, geology and the nature of light, setting out ideas which Isaac Newton later lifted and passed off as his own.  For centuries in Newton’s shadow, Hooke is now rightly regarded as Newton’s equal in everything except mathematical prowess.  He was the rock on which the early success of the Royal Society of London was built – and he wrote much more entertainingly than Newton.

John Tyndall, Fragments of Science
The Irish scientist and writer John Tyndall is almost forgotten today, but in the nineteenth century he was in effect the first science populariser, and his lectures in the United States drew crowds as large as those for Charles Dickens.  The fortune he made from those lectures was used to set up a fund for the advancement of American science.  A contemporary biographer wrote “Prof. Tyndall occupies the foremost place among his contemporaries, his only rival being his friend, Prof. Huxley [‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ Thomas Henry Huxley].”   Tyndall was a prolific author, but Fragments of science for unscientific people, published in 1871, is probably his best book.  It covers topics ranging from the nature of heat and light to spectroscopy, a voyage to Algeria to observe an eclipse, glaciology, and the composition of the Sun.

Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces
Something of a self-indulgence to conclude with.  One of the biggest influences on my scientific career, and later my career as a populariser of science, was the multi-volume Feynman Lectures on Physics which appeared in the early 1960s.  This epitome of that masterwork really does offer an easy guide to what physics, and science in general, is all about.  Feynman explores the most fundamental scientific theories that all intelligent people should be aware of – the structure and behaviour of atoms, quantum mechanics and gravity. These fundamentals that ought to be as well known as Shakespeare, Mozart and Picasso.  The material is essentially a transcript of Feynman lecturing (you can even get the lectures themselves on a CD to accompany the book), and comes across like a wise friend giving you the inside story on a subject he loves.  More than three and a half centuries after William Gilbert, Feynman never missed an opportunity to hammer home what remains the most fundamental feature of science – no matter how much you may love your pet idea, no matter how beautiful it is mathematically, “if it disagrees with experiment, then it is wrong!”  Anyone who thinks differently must be among the “lettered clowns, grammatists, sophists, spouters and the wrong-headed rabble”


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