Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book Review - Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch

When asked to name a famous British fantasy author, most Americans first inclination would be to name J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. But while Rowling may be more popular, another fantasy author holds the dubious title of “most shoplifted author” in Brittan. This position is held by author Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett is primarily known for his Discworld series; A comic fantasy series about a flat world on the back of four elephants which rides through space on the back of a giant tortoise.

One particular subset of this series is a collection of three books, written with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen, from the University of Warwick, known as The Science of Discworld.

Ironically, there is almost no Discworld science in the series. Rather, the series chronicle an experiment of magic (the wizards of Unseen University were attempting to split the thaum, the basic unit of magic), which produced our universe when the Dean twiddled his fingers in some raw firmament.

The series is somewhat difficult to get ahold of in the states since no American publisher has picked it up yet, but this is made easier due to the internet.

Each of the books has a similar structure in which the odd numbered chapters tell the fictional perspective through the eyes of the wizards (and one wizzard) as they explore the universe, our universe, that they have created. They are then followed by a chapter explaining the scientific perspective of the events that occurred in the preceding chapter.

I enjoyed the first book thoroughly (perhaps due to the fact that a large amount was physics and astronomy), and decided to skip the second and go directly to the third due to the title: Darwin’s Watch. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much.

The main plot to the fictional chapters was that, for an initially unknown reason, when Darwin was supposed to write The Origin of Species, he instead wrote a book entitled Theology of Species, in which he makes arguments similar to William Paley (hence the reference to a Watch in the title). The result of this is that the scientific community takes the position that the unknown is just divine causation, and stagnates, leaving humanity unable to flee the planet when a global ice age occurs. As such, the human species is rendered extinct.

Since the wizards feel responsible for this universe they created, they seek to set the course of history right and set about to interfere in order to ensure that Darwin writes the right book.

Overall, the chapters written by Pratchett were very entertaining, as most of his writing is. The trouble was that the scientific treatments were annoyingly unbalanced. In addition to scientific explanations, there was also a good deal of history, detailing the (in come cases, highly improbable) events that led up to Darwin’s voyage. Much of this I didn’t mind. I like science. I like the historical context of scientific discoveries.

What I don’t like is “pop science”. That is to say, as I progress further and further into the scientific field, I have a growing distaste for the cutting edge science that stands on shaky ground, and is still presented to the public as “good science.”

A perfect example of this is a good deal of quantum physics. While it’s convenient mathematically to describe things as occurring in some sort of parallel universe, that doesn’t mean that this is reality any more than breaking a complicated wave down into fundamental modes via Fourier analysis would imply that there are an infinite number of violins playing each of these tones.

This analogy is used in the book, and I’m quite fond of it. But for some reason, this doesn’t stop Stewart and Cohen from spending several tedious chapters discussing that very fuzzy edge of science in the form of time travel.

Sure, it’s fun and exciting to play with such notions in science fiction, but to present such things as well established science similar to that of gravity is to paint a distorted picture. And we wonder why so many people can’t figure out how science works…

As I see it, there’s good, solid science at one extreme. There’s science fiction/fantasy on the distant other. In the middle is things like The Physics of Star Trek which seeks to rationalize fantastical stories in fringe science which will very likely end up being tossed out in the future given that very little of the numerous ideas generated on the forefront of science make it into the core.

This misportrayl of sound science (and the endless amount of technobabble) is the reason that I can’t watch Star Trek anymore. Especially the newer series. I caught an episode of Voyager a few weeks ago and choked on some of the technobabble the chief engineer was spouting. At least with the original series, the worst you had to worry about was Shatner’s choppy acting and zippers on the backs of aliens. Now, I just stick to Star Wars where they don’t bother trying to explain anything and just leave it all up to “the Force.”

But I digress.

Despite the monotonous explorations by Stewart and Cohen, there were occasional parts that stood out. The authors never get much into the creationism controversy. Instead, they flatly condemn it and ridicule it, pointing out that it’s accepted as obvious to the scientific community and pretty much everyone in the world except America.

Additionally, they too realize that Intelligent Design merely uses old arguments from creationism. My favourite quote from the entire book is on just this subject and comes from page 47:
Yes, the proponents of intelligent design understand the eye . . . but as only one example, not as the basis of a general principle. ‘Oh yes, we know all about the eye,’ they say (we paraphrase). ‘We’re not going to ask you what use half an eye is. That’s simple-minded nonsense.’ So instead, they ask what use half a bacterial flagellum is, and thereby repeat the identical error in a different context.
The entirety of chapter 20 was also quite good, although somewhat confusing due to a sudden increase in the amount of technical jargon. This chapter explores the current understanding of evolution, which goes beyond simple natural selection as the driving mechanism of evolution.

As usual, Pratchett’s writing was an entertaining read, although not among his best. All said and done, it wasn’t my favourite book by Pratchett, but I’m not sure if I’d consider it my least favourite.

If you’re a Discworld fan, it’s worth picking up, but would probably be little value otherwise.

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