PD Smith

From Einstein to Homer Simpson: Books of the Year

16 December 2007 | Carson, climate change, Da Vinci, Einstein, geology, Haldane, Hawking, Hoeppe, Ings, Newton, Nield, Pesic, Reviewing, Science, Simpsons, Young | 2 comments

Cow parsley by River Adur, SussexIt’s that time of year again: there’s a chill in the air, the sun barely shows its face, and the leaves are just golden memories long since carried away by the wind. A great time, in fact, to recall some of the outstanding non-fiction books that have landed on my desk this year.

It’s been a vintage year for biographies. Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe is a masterly and very readable survey of the great physicist’s life and work. Of course, Einstein is hardly a neglected subject in publishing. But Isaacson had privileged access to over 3,000 pages of family correspondence which were kept under lock and key until 2006, in accordance with the will of Einstein’s step-daughter Margot. As a result Isaacson’s sympathetic biography of “science’s pre-eminent poster boy” can justifiably claim to be more comprehensive than any before.

As well as revealing more details of Einstein’s many affairs, the correspondence casts new light on his relationship with his mentally-ill younger son, Eduard. Einstein found it immensely difficult coming to terms with Eduard’s condition, but Isaacson detects “a painful sweetness in his letters to his troubled son”. At one point, Einstein touchingly advises Eduard: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”.

Another immensely enjoyable biography was Martin Goodman’s Suffer and Survive: Gas Attacks, Miners’ Canaries, Spacesuits and the Bends - The Extreme Life of Dr J. S. Haldane. In his lifelong quest to understand the secrets of respiration, pioneering physiologist and serial self-experimenter John Scott Haldane (1860-1936) became a connoisseur of rare gases, an authority on their detection and effects.

Suufer & surviveHe had a profound sense of public service and believed passionately that the world could be made a better place through the appliance of science. From miners dying of carbon monoxide poisoning and soldiers being gassed like rats in the trenches of World War I, to mountaineers and aviators coping with high altitudes, Haldane showed that science could bring light into the darkness. Goodman has a novelist’s eye for evocative detail that lesser writers might miss and the resulting biography is as compelling as a historical novel.

Andrew Robinson deserves an award for even attempting a biography of Thomas Young (1773-1829). He has been described as having “a wider range of creative learning than any other Englishman in history”. From medicine (“Young’s rule” is a method of adjusting adult doses for children) and Egyptology (he helped decipher the Rosetta Stone), to physics, in which he challenged Newton’s authority by proposing a wave theory of light, the versatility and originality of Young’s mind is simply breathtaking. Appropriately named The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Robinson’s account of Young’s achievements is an immensely impressive work, although you can’t help feeling that to really do justice to this extraordinary polymath you would need to write an encyclopedia.

In physiology too, Young made significant contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms of the eye, explaining how it focuses, defining astigmatism, and proposing the three-colour theory of how the retina detects the sensation of colour. This year there have been several memorable books on vision and how we perceive colours, especially the blue of the sky. Peter Pesic’s Sky in a Bottle (2005; published in paperback this year) and Götz Hoeppe’s Why the Sky is Blue: Discovering the Color of Life, both explore the fascinating history of how we have tried to explain and indeed replicate the blueness of the sky. It’s a question that has perplexed philosophers, scientists and children alike since the beginning of history.

For Pesic, answering this question leads us to probe “the secrets of matter and light, the scope of the universe in space and time, the destiny of the earth, and deep human feelings.” Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first to try to capture an “artificial sky” in a bottle, probably a saturated solution of copper sulphate and ammonia. Both books are excellent, although each has different strengths: Hoeppe journeys deeply into the science and Pesic, as ever, has a finely attuned ear for the way science resonates in other discourses, such as literature.

Two other studies of vision out this year that deserve to be mentioned are The Eye: A Natural History, by Simon Ings, and Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture, by Stuart Clark. The former is a wonderfully expansive book on just about everything you ever wanted to know about the eye and its workings; the latter is a densely argued but wonderfully subtle exploration of how, during the 15th to the 17th centuries, people developed a complex understanding of the relationship between what was seen and what was known.

One of the most significant cultural events of 2007 was undoubtedly The Simpsons Movie. The contribution of Homer Jay Simpson (aka the “Wizard of Evergreen Terrace”) to science is often sadly overlooked. simpsons Physicist Stephen Hawking is a great fan of the TV show and has appeared twice. He knows a good scientific idea when he sees one and Homer’s theory that the universe is shaped like a donut made an immediate impression: “intriguing….I may have to steal it.” This as well as many other weird and wonderful scientific moments in the series – such as what processes could produce Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish and do toilets in the northern and southern hemispheres really swirl in opposite directions (as Lisa claims in “Bart vs Australia”) – are explained in What’s Science Ever Done for Us? What The Simpsons can teach us about Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe, by Paul Halpern. A delightful book; as Mr Burns might say: “Exx-cellent!”

Some wonderful classics were reissued this year. Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind (1941) is, says her biographer Linda Lear, “her most successful book”. It is indeed beautifully written: exquisitely crafted and meticulously observed – a perfect union of the poetic and the scientific. Carson’s book is a timeless evocation of life beneath the waves and at the water’s edge. Another remarkable study of the ocean is Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds, by James Hamilton-Paterson, which first appeared in 1992. He emphasises the otherness of the sea, the sense that the true significance of the water that covers seven-tenths of the Earth’s surface is beyond the reach of science or even literature. He suggests its significance is both elemental (“the salt which is in seawater is in our blood and tears and sweat”) and ancestral: the thought of its otherness “makes us ache, sea creatures that we once were, as for a country we have lost on the far side of a frontier we can barely even discern”.

Stepping onto dry land for a moment, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (first published in 1995) by William Bryant Logan) is a glorious celebration of dirt – not soil or earth, but dirt: “It takes dirt to grow an oak from an acorn. It takes the rot and the shit that is the root meaning of ‘dirt’ – dritten means ‘shit’ in Old Norse.” If you want to know what makes your garden grow (or not as the case may be) then this is the book for you. From the formation of the Earth’s surface some four and a half billion years ago as the planet began to cool, to the principles of composting (including a great recipe for scallop viscera compost), Logan writes with an almost mystical intensity about the science and the metaphysics of soil. Although these three classic books are very different in style, each offers the reader a masterclass in writing. Non-fiction doesn’t get any better than this.

In Britain we tend to take the stability of the ground somewhat for granted. It came as something of a shock, therefore, to learn that even though we don’t live on a geological fault, there have in fact been 500 tremblors recorded in our green and pleasant land since the 10th century. In 1580 what became known as the “London earthquake” damaged St Paul’s cathedral and caused tsunamis that sank over 100 ships. Shakespeare even referred to this quake in Romeo and Juliet: “’Tis since the earthquake now eleven years”. This and many other fascinating links between culture and the shifting sands on which we live can be found in Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions, by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, out this year in paperback.

While I’m on matters geological, I must mention Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet, by Ted Nield. Nield In what is one of the best popularizations of geology since Richard Fortey’s Earth, Nield tells the story of “the greatest cycle of nature”, the process by which supercontinents form and break up over a period lasting between 500 and 750 million years. The timescales involved are mind-boggling, but Nield manages to bring “this slowest of all unfolding dramas” vividly alive, giving us a wonderful sense of the ancient yet powerful forces at work underneath us. Supercontinent really will change the way you look at planet Earth.

The Asian Tsunami three years ago, on 26 December 2004, was caused by a massive earthquake with a force equivalent to almost a gigaton of explosive – ten times bigger than the largest hydrogen bomb ever built. It killed almost 300,000 people. We ignore the ground beneath our feet at our peril, for as poet Hugh MacDiarmid has said:

“What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the world’s geology
But what happens to the world’s geology
Is not irrelevant to us.”

As I write this, the news reports are dominated by the UN climate change conference at Bali. This year the climate crisis was scarcely out of the headlines. Two memorable books published in paperback in 2007 highlighted the damage we are doing to the environment – The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by E O Wilson, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: A Frontline Report on Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Without being sensationalist, Wilson and Kolbert speak powerfully about what is undoubtedly one of the most important subjects today.

I’m sure I’ve left out some books that deserve to be mentioned. Feel free to put the record straight by leaving your own recommendations! If you want to read more about these books or others from 2007, they’re all here.

Happy Christmas to all of you and here’s to a New Year packed with equally great books!

[also posted on TNB]

2 comments so far:

  1. Donald | 18 December 2007

    It is the height of pedantry, I apologise, but surely it would be Mr Burns (rather than Homer) proclaiming "Exx-cellent!"?

  2. PD Smith | 18 December 2007

    D'oh! An Exx-cellent correction. Apologies & thanks for putting me right...

Leave a Reply

Name (required)
Mail (will not be published) (required)