Nature and culture, no fissure

THE FABER BOOK OF SCIENCE Edited by John Carey . Published by Faber and Faber . Price US $19.5

By Rakesh Kalshian
Published: Saturday 15 June 1996

IF You think science is boring, forbidding, unpoetic, egoistic, unintellectual, anti- environment and chauvinistic, you are either too naive to confuse science with politics or a neo-Luddite brainwashed by anti-science propagandists, or an unfortunate victim of uninspiring science teachers. The truth is otherwise, but many do not know that. Indeed, most people could not be bothered if they had never heard of the second law of thermodynamics. But ignorance of, say T S Elliot's The Waste Land or Picasso's Guernica, is certain to provoke derisive laughter. If anything, this breach between scientists and so-called 'intellectuals' has only grown wider since C P Snow, the British physicist- turned-writer, wrote that provocative essay on the Two Cultures in 1959.

But there is reason to be optimistic because in recent years, a number of gifted scientists have taken it upon themselves to bring the romance and thrill of science to the lay person. The authors of this renaissance - as John Brockman argues in his latest book The Third Culture - are now offering creative insights into the problems of mind, matter, existence, god, creativity and emotions; an intellectual menu once exclusive to literary geniuses and philosophers.

This fabulous, recherche collection is a celebration of this trend. Most of the gods of the science- writing pantheon like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Stephen I Gould, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins and Arthur C Clark, are represented here.

For a trailer of the delights contained in this volume, you could ogle at Vinci's irreverent insight into an intellectual penis; Freud's voyeuristic look at perversions; John Ruskin on the aesthetic value of rust; Samuel Pepys' absorbing account of the first blood transfusion and David Bodanis' amazing story of how Pasteur's misanthropy led him to the radical idea that diseases are caused by germs.

A unique feature of this mind-watering volume is the compositions by poets and novelists. For instance, John Updike versifies the death of the universe as dictated by the second law of thermodynamics (which states that the entropy - state of disorder - of a closed system always increases); or Lavinia Greenlaw's moving lines on the effect of radium on women watch-makers.

There is much else besides writers rhapsodising about the wonders of nature (Italo Calvino's The Gecko's Belly) and scientists describing the thrill of making a discovery (Ronald Ross's account of his anxious moments in Secunderabad before he spied the brain behind malaria). This beautiful anthology, therefore, is a must read particularly for those who find science boring and forbidding. If not for anything, read it for the reason Carey - a professor of literature - chose to edit it, "for pleasure and self-fulfillment" or as Coleridge put it, "the gratification of knowing".
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