Holiday reading 2018

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TIR will be away for the next couple of weeks, so as is now traditional we’re leaving you with a few recommendations for your holiday reading. Some old, some newish, but all page-turners in their own way.

The invention of science by David Wootton 
A walloping great tome of a book (and how many publications are there that fully deserve that noun?) that’s perfect if you’re looking for a challenge. Deals, as the title proclaims, with the genesis of modern science as it is now practised, from its first inklings in the late 15th century up to its current status post-Newton. Wootton’s argument is painstaking, methodical both in pacing and in detail, and carefully constructs its case. Like a good legal presentation, or Darwin’s “Origin of species”, the meticulous approach pays off. It’s not always the most readable, and there are sections where the thread of the argument is easily lost amid the mass of supporting evidence, but it’s mighty hard to disagree with Wootton’s conclusions. Takes in everything from a philosophical discussion of the utility of language, the role of Columbus’ voyage in generating the concept of discovery and the subsequent impact on cartography and astronomy, the contribution of perspective painting to engineering, and belief in alchemy and witchcraft. Brahe, Bruno, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Hooke, Boyle, Huygens, and Newton all take starring roles, though largely offstage. Undoubtedly slow and sometimes heavy going, but well worth it.

The Lagoon by Armand Marie Leroi
Essential reading, and in its own way a beautiful riposte to elements of Wootton’s book. Aristotelian philosophy was the intellectual straitjacket that arguably held back scientific progress for centuries, but Leroi seeks here to reclaim the man himself – not his philosophy as it came to be taught – as the ur-ancestor of all scientists, and succeeds. He has a cinematographer’s eye for a scene (in the opening passage in a Greek bookshop you can almost smell the dust), and an extremely fluent pen. Engrossing, stimulating, insightful, and rich in colourful anecdotes that both enhance the settings and powerfully portray Aristotle the man as a restless intellect consumed by curiosity about the natural world around him. It lags a little around two-thirds of the way through (inevitable for a book of its size), but this is a paradigm-shifting account of science’s birth. Socrates and Plato, incidentally, come in for castigation.

Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine
A must-read for all Dutch Golden Age enthusiasts. Takes as its thesis a delightfully mischievous question: was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 actually a stealth conquest of the British Isles by the Dutch Republic? If so, then why is it remembered as a critical juncture when the British people revolted against James II and created a constitutional monarchy? Jardine’s case, eloquently presented, is that cultural, scientific, artistic, marital, and even horticultural ties – fostered in no small part by the royal court in exile during the Interregnum – so enmeshed the two countries that when the conquest was made, the British people convinced themselves it was their idea. Constanijn Huygens (father of the scientist Christian Huygens) is the central figure, equally comfortable on both sides of the North Sea.

Big Science by Michael Hiltzik
Although its scope is perhaps not as far-reaching as Richard Rhodes’ seminal “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, for working scientists its relevance is equal. Fluently relates the genesis of big science, with Ernest Lawrence of cyclotron fame as its foremost architect. The book explicitly presents Cambridge University’s Cavendish laboratory and Lawrence’s own Rad Lab as competing philosophies/paradigms of how to do research (solo scientists vs large teams, low-fi vs big budget). Traits that are now commonplace – and often taken unquestioningly as necessities for career success – are seen being pioneered here for the first time. Lawrence disappears from a lengthy aside dealing with the atomic bomb (which itself has been very intensively covered elsewhere), but the page commitment is probably just about worth it in order to frame the account of postwar expansion in which he is again a key architect. A real warts and all portrayal of one the 20th century’s towering scientific figures, and striking for the often ambivalent tone it adopts – this is no hagiography – which will undoubtedly resonate with those of us who are uncomfortable about the showbusiness aspect of contemporary science in an era when public acquiescence to research priorities or conduct is no longer a given.

Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman
An oldie but a goodie, and a real tonic for when benchwork is bringing you down. Feynman was a genuine free spirit, iconoclast, raconteur, and a nonpareil when it came to communicating his enthusiasm for science. Puckish in tone and spirit, Feynman’s anecdotes cover his formative years, time on the Manhatten project (when he became an adept safecracker), and subsequent professional career…along with interludes as a bongo drums player and exhibited artist. His infectious joie de vivre simply leaps off the page. Of course, a life and career like that may be easier to come by when you have a genius-level intellect, but Feynman somehow has a knack for portraying himself as a plucky and competitive underdog, audacious in his boasts but gracious in his failures. A real American hero.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Like “Lark Rise to Candleford”, Fermor’s extraordinary memoir describes a lost world from the benefit of a future perspective (the journey it describes took place in the 1930s, but the book was written in the 1970s). And like “Goodbye to all that” it’s a Bildungsroman with one of those extraordinary characters from the glory days of the UK that the country just doesn’t seem to make any more. In the late 1930s, the still-teenaged Fermor walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople, a route that took him through Germany shortly after the Nazis took power. Fermor displays both immense erudition and infectious enthusiasm, a real paragon of the classical education in the humanities despite his school dropout status. His lurid description of a Munich beer hall is an absolute scream, while later episodes in Vienna and Prague have an ethereal beauty in the snow. He writes with immense sympathy and comradeship for his fellow man, a very open-minded perspective given that he was born in 1915 and raised amidst anti-German sentiment, with the countdown to war beginning over again. One of the great travel books, and an unforgettable window onto the dying days of monarchist Europe prior to the rise of communism and fascism.

Spare Parts by Joshua Davis 
A book that only seems to get more relevant with every twist and turn of the ongoing immigration debate in the USA, particularly with regard to the “Dreamers”. Tells the story of four undocumented migrants who built an award-winning robot submersible while at high school in Phoenix, Arizona. The prose belongs to a magazine style of writing, but the underdog narrative always resonates and the boys’ characters and difficult circumstances (both legal and often personal) are well drawn. The extended epilogue detailing the depressingly predictable trajectories that their lives follow after school graduation is something of an indictment. A good narrative to have in hand for contemporary debates.

…and the wild-card entry:

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore
Arguably one of the greatest writers of modern times and almost single-handedly responsible for turning comics into a viable artistic medium, Alan Moore has penned all-time classics such as “V for Vendetta”, “From Hell”, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Watchmen”. His radical reimagining of the origins of the horror comic staple Swamp Thing in the early 80s was one of the first indications of his burgeoning talent, and it’s a story arc that not just plant biologists can savour – after all, how many other books are there whose key plot point revolves around planarian flatworms? If you’ve never tried a graphic novel before, put your prejudices to one side and enjoy what this has to offer.

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