Monday, November 2, 2009

Two books, one idea

As is often the case, I am reading two books at a time.

The first is Steven Shapin's "The Scientific Revolution," which starts out: "There was no such thing as the scientific revolution, and this is a book about it." As you start reading, smiling, you find something that to a journalist is interesting: Shapin's game plan is simple, and ... journalistic! His three-chapter plan invokes questions a journalist tries to answer quickly, on top of a new story, in case the bottom of the story has to be cut to fit the news hole: What, How, and gosh, What is this knowledge for. Now, I know any comparison to journalese is no compliment to an academic, but tough. (Sure, his chapter headings leave off the other "inverted pyramid" necessities: Who and When and Why. But do you think a historian is going to leave them out?

I've only read the first third of the book, the first chapter of the three, which asks What was known?, with How was it known? and What was the knowledge for? yet to come, but already I'm impressed with the density of his writing. I don't mean "dense" as in Wittgenstein or somebody, I mean thick with condensed smarts. I've been zapped with a really cool beginning, roughly from Copernicus to Newton, with the deeper stuff yet to come. Heh!

The second book is a hard science fiction novel by Helen Collins, an East Coast English professor, whose "NeuroGenesis" came to my attention certainly not from any mainstream or even sort-of-semi-mainstream science fiction publisher, but from an acerbic critic of the SF publishing business named Norman Spinrad. Spinrad, an accomplished fiction writer himself, has written reviews for decades, often in "Asimov's Science Fiction," and in this case I could quote him at long length about this book, which apparently had to be published by a really obscure outfit called Spinrad has much to say about the quality of this book, it's amazing ability to meet every criterion of excellent SF, but he worries that the reason it hasn't been published elsewhere is that its readers must be "at least minimally scientifically literate in physics, biology, sociology, cybernetics, anthrophology, and so forth, and from the evidence in the culture at large this is not exactly a large demographic."

I can only agree, and suggest that Steven Shapin's "The Scientific Revolution" should be required (beginning) reading in every high school in the land.

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