Anti-brain fade, Bernard Beckett

Anti-brain fade

Self-confessed geek Bernard Beckett is seduced by the history of science

Asked to write on a “book that means a lot to you”, I knew I’d write about non-fiction, and indeed a piece of science writing. I am a geek by nature and take special pleasure in the facts and models upon which our narratives must rest.

I love the way great science writers draw us to the viewing platform of new discoveries where, while we might not understand the technical details, we can still soak in the majestic view. I delight too in the certain knowledge that more exciting books are yet to come, for every day new evidence accumulates, and the tale becomes more complex, more consistent and ultimately, more satisfying.

I recently read Nick Lane’s Ascending Life, a beautiful summary of the state of play in 2009 regarding the “invention” of life, DNA, warm-bloodedness, sight, movement, photosynthesis and even death. It was such fun to read why the marketing craze for antioxidants appears misguided, or of the way research into photosynthesis may ultimately provide an answer to the coming fuel crisis. And I am still getting my head around the idea that life and death deserve to be seen as separate inventions, with the essentially immortal hydra providing the provocative counter-example.

One of the great pleasures of being a science geek is finding how the ground has shifted since books on the same topic were written only 10 years ago, and knowing that the books written in 10 years’ time will bring new insights, surprises and corrections.

So which science book to choose? Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is an obvious candidate. If the question asked is “Which book do you consider to be the most important ever written?”, Origin would be an easy choice. Before Origin, it made perfect sense to regard nature’s wonder and conclude the existence of a careful and purposeful creator.

After Origin it made perfect sense not to. Metaphysically speaking, that takes a bit of beating. And when you pause to consider the long succession of technologies born of Darwin’s breathtaking speculation, it is difficult not to rate it as one of history’s greatest intellectual efforts.

Not having been alive in 1859, however, I was not in a position to feel that book’s full force. So I must look elsewhere for my favourite piece. I shall nominate a beautiful collection of tales entitled Science: A History 1543-2001 by John Gribbin. I’ve read this book a couple of times, its dense pages providing the perfect summer companion, and browsed it many times more. There are a number of things I love about this book, not least the obvious qualities of clear writing and careful scholarship. Two particular aspects, though, capture best the very personal appeal this book has for me as a reader, for both speak directly to my prejudices.

Those not seduced by science often argue that science exists as just another form of knowledge, to slot along all our other ways of knowing the world. In its tamest form this is both obvious and uninteresting. Often, though, its proponents are getting at something else, the vague and tragically common belief that scientific knowledge does not have a point of difference. Science: A History is an excellent antidote to this particular form of brain fade.

Scientists claim one thing certainly sets it apart from other forms of human enquiry: its heavy reliance upon prediction. In science, it is not okay to believe in a model that does not yield reliable predictions, at least not if an alternative model with better predictive capacities exists. Gribbin’s great skill is to unfold his tale in such a way that these links are made explicit.

When Fresnel proposed his wave theory of light, he was initially dismissed out of hand by the French Academy because his notion flew in the face of the established wisdom (established by Newton no less). The judges of the competition which Fresnel had entered then set out through experiment to show how ludicrous his models’ predictions were. Trouble was, ludicrous though they seemed, they fitted perfectly with the experimental data. So wave theory came back into the equation, and this pesky dual nature in turn led to perhaps the greatest scientific advance of the 20th century. So today I sit and type on a computer that exists only because of science’s stubborn insistence that observation trumps prejudice, which I find sort of cool.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection hinged upon the existence of a method of intergenerational information transfer, what we now think of as DNA. At the time of Darwin, no such thing was known, and it would take another 100 years before the rudiments of DNA’s structure were uncovered. But uncovered they were, and today the language of genes has entered the common lexicon. Indeed the international community watches with bated breath to see which way the swine flu virus will evolve, while in labs around the world the race is on to decipher the clues encoded in the virus’ DNA.

Gribbin is a master when it comes to drawing the links between the many examples he provides, painting a picture of science not as the lurching, intuitive and lucky beast of romantic interpretations, but rather as a sort of gradual, co-operative fumbler, feeling its way forward slowly, disposing of one piece of puzzling data at a time. By the end of its 600 pages, 400 years of progress have been assembled into a diverting and ultimately uplifting narrative.

The other thing I think Gribbin does particularly well is shed light on the arguments regarding the links between science and culture. “Ah, but all scientific enquiry is culturally informed,” some like to say. And again they are quite right, mostly because they’re saying so little. Of course the passions, obsessions and prejudices of the participants help steer the scientific juggernaut, in the obvious sense that they help to steer all human endeavour. Gribbin uses this very fact to add spice to his tales, revelling in the quirks and weaknesses of the story’s many characters. But at the same time he also makes clear there is a very specific culture, that set of disciplines first popularised in the 17th century, underpinning science’s journey. That this culture has spread to the point that it can sensibly be called universal, and that this culture in turn is responsible for the progress (in the narrow sense of our models generating more accurate predictions) of the last four centuries is a point made not through obtuse philosophical posturing, but through example after example, fascinating tales of obsessive characters, drawn from the rich history of the last 400 years.

Of course all this may be wrong, and many argue it is. They claim that this is an ethnocentric conclusion drawn in advance with the convenient examples simply drawn around it. What I enjoy about Gribbin’s book is the density of detail, which in turn demands of those uncomfortable with such a Eurocentric celebration a set of correspondingly careful and extensive counterexamples. When that book arrives I will be the first to read it, and, who knows, it may well then become my new favourite.


Bernard Beckett’s Acid Song was shorlisted in the fiction category of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.


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