Science spoof

THE THIRD CULTURE·John Brockman·A Touchstone book·Simon and Schuster· 1996·Price Rs 450

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

SCIENTISTS are not saints. Neither are they modest, nor do they believe in the con cept of loving one's fellow-folk. That, unfortunately, is the impression that one is likely to get after reading The Third Culture. The title refers to C P Snovs book The Two Cultures written in the late 1950s in which Snow stated that there were two impor tant groups of intellectuals - the literati, who were also the ruling class, and the sci entists. Brockman's thesis is that the 'third culture' con sists of those scientists who have tried to popularise sci ence and have tried to bridge the gap between the two cultures.

How does he do this? Brockman, who is a literary agent and editor of a journal called EDGF, published in the us, spoke, over a period of three years, to some of the gurus in the esoteric fields of evolution, mind and consciousness, artificial intelligence and astrophysics. Among the people he spoke to are Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Lynn Margolis, Roger Penrose, Marvin Minsky, and Daniel Dennet. The list includes at least one Nobel Prize winner, Murray Gell-Mann (1969, Physics). After creating a written narrative from his tapes, Brockman has edited the material so that n appears as if the scientists are involved in an armch" monologue with the reader.

At the very beginning of the book, Brockman invites the speakers to give their views on the third cul- ture. Apparently, all of them believe that there is a sort of conspiracy among the intellectuals. All the literary and arty types rule the world while scientists are being pushed out. Although I too have a science background, I found this conspiracy theory a bit too much to swallow and bordering on paranoia. Aren't scientists sup- posed to be practising science and not be worrying about such mundane affairs in life?

All this is a pity because it camouflages the raison d'tre of the book: to describe the method of science. Some essays stand out in this collection. Steve Jones in 'Why is there genetic diversity?' is vaguely reminiscent of parts of Sir Peter Medawar's , Advice to a young scientist' as he talks of how he landed up in snail genetics. Jones has a wonderful style of writing and does not hesitate to take digs at himself (he calls him- self a hack, and one of the best six snail geneticists in the world, out of a field of half a dozen!). Alan Guth's , A universe in your backyard' is an excellent example of what the great dreamers - theoretical physicists - dream about. Its concluding remarks, "Its important in science, and in life, to recognize that at any given time there will always be some questions you can t answer. You continue to try to answer them, but you shouldn't be surprised if you find you're incapable of answering them" eloquently reflect the philosophy of science and its practitioners.

The method of science, however, permeates the book and is specifically referred to quite often. It is pointed out that biology, unfortunately, is data-led and not theory-led. There are very few theoretical biologists, and in biology, the experiments must fit the theory .Remarkably, in the great theoretical subject, physics, it is the theory which matters -if the experiment gives different results, then the experiment must be wrong!

The Third Culture is not meant to be science for the uninitiated -far from it. These are essays on the frontiers of science - today's theories which may be tomorrow's realities. Parts of the book are difficult to understand but this pearl (Steve Jones on Brian Goodwin's books: "Extre- mely hard to follow. That could be because I'm stu- pid") made me heave a sigh of relief. If you enjoy reading provocative stuff, this is it.

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