This will start of as a sort of book review, but move on to what seems to me to be an interesting question, and one on which I will seek your ideas.
Six months or so ago, Richard Dawkins's compilation, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing came out and it immediately joined my pile of good intentions. I have carried its intellectually and physically weighty 400 pages with me to Central Asia and back, but over the holidays, with a fire, a comfortable sofa and a few glasses of wine, I finally read it - cover to cover. Now I have to admit that I'm a foul weather fan of Dawkins - when the glass is half empty, the chips are down, push comes to shove and intelligent design is taught in science classes, I'm with him all the way. But when the glass is half full, I often wish that he would calm down a little, and perhaps check the mirror rather less often. But this compendium, including the brief introduction to each extract, is wonderful. I found myself reunited with old favorites - Rachel Carson, Richard Feynman, George Gamow, Steve Gould - but often pieces that I didn't know or, more likely, had forgotten. But there were also discoveries - I found myself delighted by Peter Medawar, convinced (again) that I should read Primo Levi and Douglas Hofstadter, and fascinated by Loren Eiseley. I was reminded why I find Carl Sagan infinitely more entertaining to read than to listen to. I was also reminded guiltily why I, like, I suspect, many, have A Brief History of Time on our bookshelf but have never made it all the way through. And, given my theme, I was pleased that the beginning of the first extract reads "Standing on our microscopic fragment of a grain of sand, we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in space and time. Our first impression is something akin to terror........because of the material insignificance of our home in space - a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world." (James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe). One of the science books I have enjoyed most over the last few years was also there, Per Bak's How Nature Works, with his introduction to the wonders of sand piles.
In short, read this book - it's compelling and inspiring.
Dawkins has just completed his tenure as the first holder of the Arthur Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (now held by Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician and engrossing writer). The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing dramatically illustrates what excellent communication of science is about - and why it should be inspiring. Here are a couple of extracts that illustrate this, and its vital importance in today's world. First, from Arthur Eddington, the British physicist who, in 1919, used an eclipse of the sun to measure its bending of light and thus proved Einstein to be right. In 1940, in The Expanding Universe, he wrote:
Science has its showrooms and its workshops. The public today, I think rightly, is not content to wander round the showrooms where the tested products are exhibited; The demand is to see what is going on in the workshops. You are welcome to enter; but do not judge what you see by the standards of the showroom.
I was really struck by this compelling image - in my view, the way science is presented today in the media is as the showroom, things we know, none of the excitement of the unknown, the uncertainty, the workroom.
And then, Carl Sagan, writing in 1996 in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communication, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
So, a highly recommended, provocative, book. But I do have a couple of complaints. First, Dawkins explains in his introduction that "This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers." OK, this is his book, not yours or mine, but if part of the rationale for the collection is making science - particularly its workshops - accessible, then this is only part of such a mission. Yes, the creativity and articulateness of scientists is admirably demonstrated, but the other side of the coin deserves attention too - where are Philip Ball, James Gleick, John Gribbin, Simon Winchester? Surely the "excursions" (a condescending way of putting it, don't you think?) of professional writers into the workshops can be equally compelling and equally powerful in making science accessible and exciting?
But mention of Simon Winchester (some of whose books, particularly The Map that Changed the World, I find better than others) raises the key question: where's the geology? In Dawkins's collection all the key strands of science are covered, from the quantum scale to the universe, via information theory and the Turing test, but, apart from two lovely paleontological pieces by Richard Fortey, geology is entirely absent. There is discussion as to what are the greatest discoveries in science during the last century - evolution (as it came to be mapped out by the "neo-Darwinists"), relativity, the double helix? There is no mention whatsoever of plate tectonics, surely an example of revolutionary science?
Is this the fault of Dawkins or of us as geologists? Professional geologists are as capable of writing well as other scientists and, among them, are those who can write superbly - is it simply that they tend not to write in the same vein that Feynman and Sagan did? I have a book titled Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology, published a couple of years ago and edited by Lauret E. Savoy, Eldridge Moores and his wife, Judith E. Moores. It's a great collection, covering everything from Pliny the Elder onwards. But, other than extracts from Steve Gould, Hans Cloos, and, again, Loren Eiseley, the modern pieces are largely by non-scientist writers (John McPhee, Barry Lopez and many others) rather than by professional geologists.
So, here's a question (I have some ideas, but I'm interested in yours): who are the geologists of the last century who have written great stuff - books, articles, whatever - on the excitement and the discoveries of our discipline, on what it's like to be a geologist, on what geologists do, and what gets them excited? And what are these best bits of geological science writing?