Some people are absolutely fascinated by science, but find how it’s taught to us to be lacking. Hell, Sir Issac Newton made his books hard to read on purpose, basically because he was a total prick and only wanted “worthy” people to understand it—or so the story goes. Today it’s more a matter of academia having a tradition of focusing on the exact and factual, but at the expense of accessibility in their textbooks. This is fine for those in the field, but what about those of us with a casual interest?
Fortunately there have been a number of books whose goal is to educate shlubs like us. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything or Stephen Hawking’s A Briefer History Of Time are well known examples. But one of the most interesting of the genre comes from a fantasy writer and two science writers: Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen.
The Science of Discworld is currently four books that have a unique approach to edu-tainment (or as Ian Stewart calls it: “fact/fantasy fusion”. Unlike other “The Science of _____” books (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc…) these do not delve into psudo-science, trying to explain how fictional things like tractor beams, warp drive, or lightsabers work.
Instead, they use alternating chapters of fiction and fact as a kind of carrot on a stick reward system. Terry will write a Discworld chapter involving his Wizards trying to understand the rules of our magic-less Roundworld (which they created by accident… long story), followed by Ian and Jack writing a science-based chapter. The two travel in tandem, most of the time some element of the Discworld story acts as an introduction to the science article, and both are on a similar journey of understanding. And make no mistake; the science articles are just as entertaining as the fictional story.
The first Science of Discworld can be seen as a general overview of the universe, touching on everything from the Big Bang, the creation of our solar system, evolution, atomic power, and more. It stands alone as a great brush-up course on everything you slept through in high school. And if you had these guys as teachers, you never would have slept through it in the first place.
After that the books have more of a focus. Book 2 is also known as The Globe,
and is my personal favorite. In the Pratchett story, the Wizards have to stop the Elves from interfering in our world and causing our untimely demise (in our future we escape Earth before an extinction-level meteor strike). To do so they end up travelling back and forth in our history trying to understand what our “science” is, and finding no easy answers. Ultimately they have to use Shakespeare to save the world.
The science section mirrors this same journey, asking how science came to be and showing how people we view as pure scientists (like Newton) dabbled in pure nonsense (like alchemy). It also introduces us to a tantalizing hypothesis: perhaps we’re not Homo Sapiens (Wise Man) but instead Pan Narrans (Storytelling Ape). Perhaps our defining characteristic that allowed us to become who we are instead of remaining ordinary primates was our ability to tell stories.
The third book in the series is Darwin’s Watch, and focuses on evolution. The Wizards are trying to save humanity again, this time because someone is trying to change Darwin’s role in history, which ends up slowing down our progress just enough to miss escaping earth before the meteor strike. In doing so they end up realizing just how many lucky breaks were actually involved in Darwin’s round-the-world journey of discovery.
The science section focuses not just on evolution, but how we came to understand it (the evolution of evolution as it were), though it also touches on other elements like the concept of time travel and even free will.
The evolution theme carries over into the fourth book, Judgement Day. Here the very ownership of the Roundworld (our universe, which is kept in a jar in Unseen University) comes under question. While the Discworld is a flat world on the backs of four elephants who stand on a giant spacefaring tortoise (obviously), a radical faction of one religion (who believe it to be round despite all evidence contrary) see the Roundworld experiment as their property by divine right. It comes down to a court case, and a librarian from Roundworld ends up becoming part of the defense team.
The science part reflects some of the ongoing controversies that just won’t go away, such as evolution and “intelligent design” in schools and the growing mistrust of science in general. It takes an introspective look at how and why we tend to think in a human-centric fashion, how our religions developed as a result of that, and ultimately how that human-centric view skews the way we look at science, interpret its results, and even what questions we choose to ask.
This is a series that someone with a casual interest in science will find enlightening – and for those who already have a strong understanding, entertaining.
Nobody said science nerds couldn’t read for pleasure, you know.
Originally Published in KODT #210