Thursday, 15 December 2011

Art of Science

The Art of Science: A Natural History of Science by Richard Hamblyn

Independent, 4 November 2011                     

is a thing of beauty. It's the inscription carved on the memorial stone in Westminster Abbey commemorating the life and work of the greatest British physicist of the 20th century, Paul Dirac. By accounting for the spin of the electron, Dirac's equation managed to reconcile Einstein's special theory of relativity with one of the few genuine revolutions in human thought, quantum mechanics. Does it matter, asks Richard Hamblyn, that Dirac's equation remains a closed book to all but a handful of initiates able to translate its compact hieroglyphics into a statement about the nature of the universe?

For Hamblyn, it does. Few of us can read ancient Aramaic or have ever finished Finnegan's Wake; nevertheless we manage to struggle along just fine. So why is Dirac's equation, and other such mathematical statements, different? Hamblyn worries that while an inability to read an ancient language or an experimental novel rarely leads to a wholesale rejection of all other languages or literature, there is a tendency among non scientists to characterise the whole of science as being as reductive, difficult and as alien as   Dirac's equation.

Introducing this anthology, Hamblyn overstates the case to reinforce his point, especially when the likes of Brian Cox and Alice Roberts make science on TV accessible to all. Intellectual engagement and entertainment are the key ingredients as scientists try to connect with audiences beyond the lab and lecture theatre. Hamblyn achieves that in this collection as he showcases not only readable translations of key scientific ideas but situates those ideas in their cultural and historical context.

The hundred-odd pieces selected either reflect the situation in which a moment of scientific understanding took place or reveal the personalities of the scientists involved. The extract from James Watson's account of the events leading up to the discovery of the structure of DNA, for example, highlights the egotism and insensitivity to be found on virtually every page of The Double Helix – yet these character traits were important factors in Watson's scientific success.

Among the classics Hamblyn has chosen is Tycho Brahe on the supernova, William Harvey on the circulation of blood, Galileo on the moons of Jupiter, Einstein on the quantum theory of light, Fahrenheit on his temperature scale and Darwin on the Origin of Species. However, the strength of the collection lies in the surprises from among the contributions made by amateurs: Seneca on whirlwinds; the schoolteacher and champion of atomism John Dalton on colour blindness; the classification of clouds into cirrus, cumulus, and stratus that remains in use today by the pharmacist Luke Howard; the account by the country doctor Gideon Mantell of how he reconstructed the Iguanodon from its fossilised teeth, and - my favourite – a piece on snowflakes by Vermont farmer Wilson Bentley.

With the ingenious aid of a bellows camera rigged up to a microscope, in 1885 Bentley became the first person successfully to photograph snowflakes. Over the next 40 years, having built up thousands of images, Bentley concluded that no two snowflakes are the same. His life's work was "one of the little romances of science". Although there are other such romances, Hamblyn has largely chosen pieces that have documentary value.

James Lind's account of his clinical trials on board HMS Salisbury affords us a surgeon's-eye view of everyday life on an 18th-century warship complete with barrels of baked biscuits and a scurvy-ridden crew. We get a glimpse of the reaction to Copernicus's new ordering of the cosmos through contemporary accounts that also shed light on the means by which his ideas began to spread.

"Art is the Tree of Life," wrote William Blake. "Science is the Tree of Death." This collection proves such accusations to be groundless as it offers ample evidence, to be dipped into at leisure, for what Hamblyn describes as the greatest invention of the human imagination, "the art of scientific thinking".