Science gone right, science gone wrong, science gone social, science gone political—it’s all here in five off-beat book recommendations to kick off 2009. Ranging from Darwin’s Origin of Species to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the one thing I think I can guarantee is that you will struggle to find an odder bunch of literary bed-fellows! Hope you enjoy them, and have a happy new year!
A new year, a new leaf—time for five more eclectic (some might say eccentric) book recommendations to see you through the hangover and into a brighter future.
As in the previous five good books blog, I’ve eschewed the conventional to provide as unusual a potpourri of literary delights as you will find anywhere. And as before, I’ve tried to inject a little method into the madness—spot it if you can!
I should first apologize because this was supposed to be a quick blog, rushed off before the New Years festivities began in earnest. But it turned into a veritable “slow blog!”
So for those of you impatient to read the recommendations and move on, here they are:
- On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
- The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow
- Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham
- Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
- Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett
But please do read on, and discover the why behind the what… Here then, is my retrospective-prospective reading list for a technologically-enlightened 2009—enjoy!
In the number one slot: On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. How could it be anything else? Perhaps one of the most influential books to have been written over the past couple of hundred years, the repercussions of Darwin’s seminal work are still being felt today. 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species (as if you didn’t know)—and what better excuse to go back to the source and read what the great man really wrote in what he refers to as “this abstract”—and some abstract at nearly 500 pages!
Unlike much of the debate and controversy it initiated, Origin is a carefully developed and reasoned thesis based on Darwin’s observations—evidence-based science at its best. And rather impressively, the more we learn about life on this planet, the more Darwin’s Theory of Evolution makes sense.
This is essential reading for understanding how disruptive and empowering scientific knowledge can be within society. As society comes to rely increasingly on science and technology, there are lessons here that are well worth learning. The Origin of Species sold out on the day it was published in 1859. It’s hard to imagine a science text selling so fast nowadays. Which makes you think—in all the talk about how essential technology and innovation are in today’s knowledge economy, have we lost sight of the underlying science? I wonder…
Next up, another anniversary and another highly influential book. On May 7 1959, Charles Percy Snow—better know as C. P. Snow—delivered the annual Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge. His title: The Two Cultures. The lecture—and its subsequent appearance in print—caught the spirit of the moment as two cultures; one dominated by literary intellectuals, the other by scientists; grew increasingly detached from each other and threatened to rob society of it’s ability to progress.
Snow’s thoughts have moulded thinking about science and society over the intervening 50 years. But just as few who uphold or decry Darwinian evolution have read the original text, I suspect that not many who talk “knowledgeably” about the two cultures are that familiar with what the man actually said.
Having recently revisited the lecture, I would strongly recommend anyone interested in the interface between science and society to read it. The lecture is clearly of its time—society has changed since 1959. Yet scrape away at the surface, and many of the themes in the lecture are as relevant now as they were fifty years ago—negligible communication between the world of science and “traditional culture,” disrespect for science literacy (as distinct from technology familiarity), and the importance of ensuring the scientific revolution breaks down socially indefensible barriers—especially between the rich and the poor.
Today the cultures are different, and the boundaries between them blurred. But the bottom line is that we are more dependent than ever on science in society, yet more ignorant than ever on how science works, and how to use it wisely.
If Darwin demonstrated how disruptive science can be, Snow illuminated how essential it is to harness and use its disruptive power for good within society—or suffer the consequences.
As an aside, even more significant (in my opinion) than the original Rede lecture is Snow’s 1963 assessment of the lecture’s impact. In The Two Cultures: A Second Look, C.P. Snow finds the freedom to explain more clearly what he was really getting at in the lecture. Here he explains the use of the “two cultures” as a vehicle to explore far more profound aspects of the science-society relationship—many just as important yet overlooked today as they were then. Quoting from the beginning of the essay:
“In our society (that is, advanced western society) we have lost even the pretense of a common culture. Persons educated with the greatest intensity we know can no longer communicate with each other on the plane of their intellectual concern. This is serious for our creative, intellectual and, above all, our normal life. It is leading us to interpret the past wrongly, to misjudge the present, and to deny our hopes of the future. It is making it difficult or impossible for us to take good action.”
Read these essays—they are important!
Third in the list comes something a little lighter: Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham. Published in 1960—right on the coat-tails of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures—it is a fictitious tale of a scientific discovery leading to longer lives for a select few, and the social and moral challenges this raises.
Admittedly, the book is dated—it was written nearly fifty years ago after all. But it’s still a great read. And more importantly, it raises questions about the development and use of disruptive scientific knowledge that are highly relevant to today.
The story revolves around the discovery of a lichen-based compound that can extend a person’s lifespan by a factor of three. But the compound cannot be synthesized, and the source is limited. The moral questions raised are complex—longer life expectancy could lead to a more reflective society, more time to find solutions to pressing problems, greater quality of life. But it could also lead to social injustice—widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and initiate social unrest.
The context may be very 1960’s, but the general issues resonate strongly with challenges facing society today as science and technology become increasingly complex. And just as society was ill-equipped to handle disruptive science back in the 1960’s, it must be asked whether we are any better off now.
The fourth book in this list of five is something of an outsider—Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee. 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this account of village life in rural England in the early twentieth century—anniversaries emerging as something of a theme here. Most of the book has nothing to do with science and technology. But it is worth reading for two reasons:
First, it is a beautifully crafted account of pre-industrial revolution English village life—I guarantee it will fill you for nostalgia, even if you have never seen an English village!
But more to the point, Lee begins to chart the enormous changes wrought on this thousand year old way of life by the industrial revolution—what Snow referred to as the beginnings of the scientific revolution we are still in. If you get the chance, read the final chapter of the book. While Lee is ambivalent on whether the changes he witnessed over the course of his youth were for good or ill, you cannot help but reflect on where the scientific revolution is leading us as you absorb his prose.
To whet your appetite, this is from the beginning of the final chapter:
“The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life. The change came late on our Costwold valley, didn’t really show itself till the late 1920’s; I was twelve by then, but during that handful of years I witnessed the whole thing happen.
“Myself, my family, my generation, were born in a world of silence; a world of hard work and necessary patience, of backs bent to the ground, hands massaging the crops, of waiting on weather and growth; of villages like ships in the empty landscapes and the long walking distances between them; of white narrow roads, rutted by hooves and cart-wheels, innocent of oil or petrol, down which people passed rarely, and almost never for pleasure, and the horse was the fastest thing moving. Man and horse were all the power we had—abetted by levers and pulleys. But the horse was king, and almost everything grew around him: fodder, smithies, stables, paddocks, distances, and the rhythms of our days. His eight miles an hour was the limit of our movements, as it had been since the days of the Romans. That eight miles an hour was life and death, the size of our world, our prison.”
Then came cars and machines and science and technology…
Lee’s eloquent prose demonstrates just how disruptive science and technology innovation is. The innovation can lead to both good and bad—both Lee and Snow clearly acknowledge this. The trick it would seem—the moral imperative even—is to act to ensure the good outweighs the bad.
Last but most definitely not least comes another novel, and a real gem of a book: Nation, by Sir Terry Pratchett.
(yes, Terry has just received a well-deserved “K”.)
A word of warning up front: This is a grown-up book masquerading as a child’s story. So you might at first dismiss it. But you do so at your peril, for Pratchett weaves an enlightening and challenging tale about science, society and religion that succeeds where many academic tomes have failed.
The story revolves around a young boy living on a Pacific island who looses his whole community to a tsunami, but ends up building a new one from the flotsam and jetsam of society that wash up on the shores. This seemingly simple setting allows Pratchett to explore the barriers between races, cultures, philosophies, religion and science, and what can be achieved when these are broken down.
The tale is set in a parallel world, which rather delightfully enables Pratchett to bend the history of science somewhat, and the activities of some of its leading lights. There is a beautiful homage to the likes of Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and even Patrick Moore in the closing pages!
But the power of this book—and it is powerful—comes from Pratchett’s knack of shining a searing spotlight on the human condition in the most gentle and humorous of ways.
Nation covers may themes, one of which is the foolishness of blind belief. Of course, this includes religious beliefs in the book. But it also extends to scientific “beliefs.” And there is a clear message here for societies facing a science and technology-dominated future: Learn from the past, respect evidence, and communicate across barriers.
To wrap up, while this is an odd set of recommended reading by anyone’s reckoning, hopefully the thread holding the list together is clear—addressing the challenges and opportunities of science and technology within society. Writing on the brink of 2009, science and technology innovation seem more important than ever. Yet we seem further than ever in understanding how to ensure everyone benefits from advances that are made.
Hopefully revisiting (or visiting for the first time) these books will provide a new perspective on making wise choices over the coming year.
Happy reading, and happy 2009!
Footnotes, added 1/1/09
On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, is currently available in many imprints – check out Amazon.com for further details.
The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow, is currently published by Cambridge University Press (in the Canto series). This edition includes both the 1959 lecture, the 1963 essay, and an excellent introduction by Stefan Collini.
Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham was recently re-released by Penguin Books UK. US readers will need to explore that archaic institution the Library… or pay for international shipping!
For more on the “slow blog,” check out Todd Sieling’s Slow Blog Manifesto!