Books do furnish a life

A collection of science writers’ commentary on science literature along with great thinkers.

Makliya Mamat  /  March 12, 2023

At a time when science can seem complex and remote, it has a greater impact on our lives, and to the future of our planet, than ever before. It really matters that its discoveries and truths should be clearly and widely communicated. That science should be brought out of the laboratory, taken into the corridors of power and defended in the maelstrom of popular culture.

In my blog Gene’s View of Life which I posted last year, I recommended the classic book titled The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, the first book of his I ever read.

In the introduction, Richard Dawkins argues why a scientist has never received the Nobel Prize in Literature—the only possible exception, Henri Bergson, was “more of a mystic than a true scientist”—since science, he argues, is a subject more than capable of sparking the imagination and inspiring talented penmanship: “who would deny that Carl Sagan’s writing is of Nobel literary quality, up there with the great novelists, historians, and poets? ”

In “The Literature of Science,” Dawkins expands on his argument for science as literature. Who could not be moved by Loren Eiseley’s “tenuous thread of living protoplasm” or Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot? Many scientists write in a dense and opaque manner than is necessary. Nonetheless, those who combine academic rigor, compelling subject matter, beautiful imagery, and composed prose demand much more praise than the literati typically accord them. 

The book comprises six parts, each beginning with a transcribed conversation between Dawkins and a scientist or writer, and each conversation is followed by about a dozen introductions, forewords, or, in some cases, standalone essays that were published elsewhere. Where I particularly enjoy the conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Books do Furnish a Life honors the authors who convey the ideas of science and the natural world in both fiction and non-fiction by bringing together his forewords, afterwords, and introductions to works by some of the most influential thinkers of our time, including Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Jacob Bronowski, and Lewis Wolpert, as well as a selection of his reviews, both admiring and critical, of a wide range of scientific and other works. It honors the bravery of those who share their stories of shunning religion and embracing reason, of defending scientific truths and rigorous analysis against fraud and misdirection.

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