Monday, October 31, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Isaac Asimov “A CHOICE OF CATASTROPHES” (first published 1979)
Doris and David Jonas “OTHER SENSES, OTHER WORLDS” (first published 1976)

Reading Michael Corballis’s little Pieces of Mind reminds me of the importance of what the French call “vulgarisation” in scientific matters.

Non-scientists like me are incapable of understanding complex equations and un-glossed scientific jargon. Because we non-scientists make up the overwhelming majority of the population, we are badly in need of books and articles that explain scientific processes and concepts to us in accessible language. I do not mean works of unscientific fantasising. Nor do I mean works that patronise us by over-simplifying. I mean works written by qualified scientists who treat us as adults but know we are not specialists.

In this area of “vulgarisation”, one of the best recent examples was Victoria University of Wellington lecturer Gillian Turner’s North Pole, South Pole, published last year by Awa Press, which examined the topic of geomagnetism. When I reviewed it in the Sunday Star-Times, I called it “a clearly written well-illustrated primer on an important and under-publicised area of science” and I later made it one of my Books of the Year. So imagine my surprise when I later came across a review where a journalist threw a tantrum because Turner’s book contained some long words and a little jargon. I repeat, I am no scientist, but I thought Turner’s book was crystal-clear with all the hard words considerately glossed. Even when it comes to “vulgarisation”, it would appear that for some readers nothing is vulgar enough.

There is an obvious difficulty with good vulgarisation, however. It will date as quickly as the science that it explains, so few works of scientific vulgarisation ever become classics. Ideas in science are quickly superseded when experimentation discredits them and new hypotheses arise. Even so, there are some vulgarisations that have stood up for a few decades, and two of them are this week’s Something Old.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1993) was the ultimate “nerd” writer for teenagers whose tastes ran to science fiction and popular science. He was also a writing machine who could crank out books by the yard. Some references credit him with writing more books than any other single author, a total of 400 books over 50 years. That averages at 8 books per year, which means that, throughout his adult life, Asimov wrote one book every month-and-a-half. And it shows.

Inevitably, some of Asimov’s books are crap. His “hard-core” science fiction doesn’t hold up well for grown-ups, being compounded of cardboard characters, technology and no nuance. Check out his overrated Foundation series. But the right sort of teenager can still enjoy it and good on them. I’m on the side of anything that gets kids away from Harry Potter-ish fantasising or moping teenage vampires. I note, too, that some of Asimov’s sf was specifically written for teenagers.

A professor of biochemistry, Asimov spent as much time producing popularisations of science as he did writing  sf.

A Choice of Catastrophes is one of his best.

The book is subtitled The Disasters that Threaten Our World. Methodically, chapter by chapter, Asimov considers all the possible ways in which Planet Earth itself, or at least all human life on it, could be destroyed. He classifies these possible disasters into five types. First, cosmic catastrophes, such as an increase in entropy, contraction of the universe or the compelling force of black holes. Second, solar catastrophes, such as the death of our sun. Third, something happening to the Earth alone, such as its bombardment by cosmic debris (comets, asteroids etc.), the slowing of Earth’s rotation or the loss of magnetism. Fourth, competition with other life forms, be they bacilli, large animals that have yet to evolve, or extraterrestrials. And finally, disaster and extinction brought about by human beings themselves, through depletion of resources, misused technology and so forth.

A sceptic and an atheist, Asimov was nevertheless interested in religious speculation and wrote his own massive commentary on the Bible. This partly sprang from his Orthodox Jewish background. He considerately begins his survey of disasters with a brief chapter on how various religions have imagined the Last Days.

I do not commend A Choice of Catastrophes for its literary style. Asimov was a stylistic plodder and explicator, but this suits his subject matter. I am sure that, after thirty years, some of his specifically scientific data would now be contested by scientists. Even so, while outlining how it could all end, Asimov makes it clear what is meant by thermodynamics, by quasars, by anti-matter, tectonic theory, scientific catastrophism, genetic mutations and much else. In short, while entertaining us, he does his work as a good vulgariser.

Probably a lot dodgier in its science, and far more speculative even than Asimov’s imagined catastrophes, is Doris and David Jonas’s Other Senses, Other Worlds.

The underlying idea of this book is very simple. As we should all know, animals other than human beings have very different ways of perceiving the physical universe.  How different must reality look to a bat or a dolphin, each of which makes much use of echo-location. What of the fact that bees and many birds can see parts of the spectrum that are invisible to human beings? And what of the fact that human beings have a relatively limited sense of smell in comparison with many other species?

Now, imagine these non-human sensory faculties allied to an intelligence as great as that of a human being. What sort of civilization or culture would develop among intelligent beings for whom smell was the dominant sense? Of who could see the whole spectrum? Or who could harness any one of a dozen faculties that are not accessible to human beings?

As you can guess, Other Senses, Other Worlds deals as much with speculation as explanation, and comes close to imagining possible types of extraterrestrial beings. But the Jonases keep their feet on the ground. Both were evolutionary biologists, most of whose work (Young Till We Die, Man-Child etc) was devoted to explaining specific inherited aspects of human behaviour. They make it clear when they are speculating and prove that that even good vulgarisation may be permitted its flights of fancy. 


  1. The only problem is that specialists tend to poo-poo any person who vulgarises. For example, historians love to hate Melvyn Bragg and psychologists find Steven Pinker to be a tiresome populist. The main problem is twofold. First, in order to popularise something, you often remove small details that are actually very important points. Second, if you are busy vulgarising, you are not actually doing your work, which should be research whereby you find out new things. Some of my colleagues write books that attempt to popularise their field. They are seen to be charlatans by their colleagues, mainly because in order to write a populist book, you must talk about a number of research areas and you will inevitably go outside your area of knowledge.

  2. Yes, it's a problem. I find my own hackles rise when a vulgariser is vulgarising something I know about. I am currently moving slowly through Steven Pinker's 800-page "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (I will cover it on the blog in a few weeks) and find much to quarrel with in it. As for Melvyn Bragg - oy vey! But having said this, there still have to be middle-brow books for the non-expert - just so long as the non-expert realizes how selective and provisional they always are.