So I Lied: One truly last thought on Dawkins…

…actually, a couple.

First — Blake Stacey has written an excellent, detailed and generous review of what’s actually in Richard Dawkins’ The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Stacey and I disagree as to the liklihood that Dawkins dissed non-scientist writers about science, and we agree that Dawkins’ selection is a bit narrow. But both issues aside, I certainly concur that Dawkins’ collection is eminently worth reading. Stacey tells you why.

Second — I’ll use this excuse to promote two other examples of popular science anthologizing that I don’t think got enough notice, and that do respond to (among other things) Larry Moran’s demand for accuracy.

One is Alan Lightman’s The Discoveries, subtitled “Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science.” and the other is Marcia Bartusiaks Archives of the Universe: 100 Discoveries That Transformed Our Understanding of the Cosmos.

Both authors use variations of the same basic approach: they take the original papers, provide an extensive introduction to each one, and allow their readers to experience for themselves the actual science (or at least the formal presentation of it) that forms the architecture of our modern understanding of the material world (or the cosmic part of it, in Marcia’s case).

I have quibbles — for example I told Alan that he should have included Wegener’s plate tectonics work in his collection, to which he replied that he did the work and he got to choose, which is true.]

But such really are quibbles. These are exceptional collections — one by a physicist, one by a physics-literate science writer (i.e. both sides of the street some of us have been arguing about). They are true guides for the reader: the real stuff combined with well written and on point apparatus to allow non-specialists to gather what’s going on in the technical material. I recommend them both.

Logrolling alert: Alan and Marcia are both my colleagues in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.

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One Comment on “So I Lied: One truly last thought on Dawkins…”


  1. I’m not sure whether this point has been made anywhere in this conversation, so preferring redundancy to omission, here goes: Every piece of science writing that’s interesting to non-specialists contains writing by a non-specialist. Even credentialed scientists have to write about areas outside their research specialties, lest their books be too narrow and interesting only to colleagues.

    Further, much of the most interesting science writing is interdisciplinary in some way – say, synthesizing the progress of instrumentation in music with that in science – and interdisciplinary work by definition gets any author without multiple Ph.D.s into some less familiar terrain. The physicists of course think it’s axiomatic that they can handle it. Dawkins may be guilty of treating the rest of us the way physicists treat biologists.


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