Non-Fiction Reviews


The Science of Discworld IV
Judgment Day

(2013) Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen , Ebury Press, 18.99, hrdbk, 342 pp, ISBN 978-0-091-94979-2
Ebury Press, 7.99, pbk, 342 pp, ISBN 978-0-091-94980-8

 

If you have not read the first three of these then in brief it is a non-fiction, popular science book delightfully wrapped in colourful Discworld fantasy packaging. Hugely entertaining, thought-provoking, and an aid to seeing the world and Universe (if not universes) with a different perspective that can be illuminating, it is certainly entertaining and surely (as surely as anyone can be in a universe underpinned by quantum uncertainty) falls squarely into that category of being the proverbial 'good read'.

Having already reviewed the third in the Science of Discworld series in one sense there is little new to say, for what we get (and want) is more of the same: a slightly different, but stimulating, perspective on life, the Universe and everything lubricated with some Discworld narrative aid. All well and good. But this is a new book and it does provide new material: what it is not is a re-hash of the first three titles. And so I am duty-bound to provide a fresh review.

Take it as read that those seriously into Terry Pratchett's Discworld and who have a reasonably developed sense of curiosity as to the Universe's nature (both in its sense of a noun relating to 'characteristics' as well as the biological sense [I include this last to Jack whose fingerprint on the text is certainly discernable]) will get this book. But will others? I hope so. Those into popular science and unfamiliar with Discworld will still find a huge amount to enjoy: the Discworld bits simply provide a distant fantastical point a different perspective from which to look back at reality. If you like popular science books and TV series such as BBC's QI ('quite interesting'), then you will simply love The Science of Discworld series.

The authors are all well-equipped to provide you with such a treat. Terry is, of course, well known as a writer. He is less well-known for his former incarnation as a copy writer conveying a technology company's messages to core stakeholders and the wider public: he worked as a press officer for England and Wales' former electricity generating board that was a world class organization before it got politically dismembered (broken up and then privatised) in the 1990s but I digress. Terry therefore is not just a master story teller, he is used to conveying information that is underpinned by science and technology.  Ian Stewart FRS is a mathematician based at Warwick University who, in addition to academic papers, has written a score of popular science books and this combination of academic and communicator has garnered him fellowship of the Royal Society (Britain's science academy that promotes research excellence and broader [public] dissemination of science understanding), hence the FRS.  Jack Cohen FIBiol is a reproductive biologist who was for many years based at Birmingham University (down the road from Ian's Warwick) and a short time at Warwick itself. He was also for many years active in Britain's professional body for biologists the Institute of Biology (recently re-vamped as the Society of Biology) and was back in the 1970s granted Fellowship of the Institute of Biology (hence the FIBiol). (At this point I should, in the interests of openness and transparency, declare what some may consider an interest in that for a decade and a half I worked at the Institute of Biology but I hope you will trust me to be impartial.)  Both Terry, Ian and Jack, aside from their technical and science backgrounds, are into science fiction, and for many years they both regularly went to conventions (as do a number of those working in the science and technology related sectors). (Which occasionally kind of made it odd for myself as at the Institute of Biology Jack would sit on some of the committees I serviced and then, in a very different context, we would meet again at SF conventions sometimes on science panels.) The bottom line is that all three of this book's authors are commendably suitable to writing popular science books. Indeed the mix of knighted, international fiction best-seller author, SF fan FRS and FIBiol is such an extremely rare (perhaps so far an unique) mix for an authorial team that it is one those of us into popular science might want to seriously cherish.

Turning to the Science of Discworld IV itself, this fourth offering has a similar starting point to its predecessors. The scientists of Terry Pratchett's fantasy fiction Discworld have created an artificial universe in which there is a rocky 'roundworld' orbiting about a sun. This world is called the Earth! With that established, as with the previous works, it is possible to discuss the nature of this artificial (real) universe and its roundworld (the Earth), and on occasion actually extract some of its occupants such as Charles Darwin for a chat.

With this fourth offering 'Judgement Day', the authors particularly focus on the nature of the universe and god. Some old ground is revisited such as aspects of evolution that was the focus of book 3 but with fresh material and, of course, this book's different focus in mind: so you are getting new bangs for your buck.

Quibbles? Well only minor ones, and these are the same that I had with the third in the Science of Discworld series.

In providing us with a fascinatingly different perspective on life, the Universe and everything they do throw, what I consider to be, some low-balls with regards the meaning of words. This is not a big problem but a minor one for me: like I say, a 'quibble'.  For example, towards the end of the book's concluding chapter they say:

"an atheist is not someone who believes that God doesn't exist"

Now actually the dictionary (The Concise Oxford) actually says:

"Atheism n. the theory or belief that God does not exist."

And indeed the word's Greek roots mean 'without god'' [a theos]. Having said that, the authors do go on to make a very interesting, and indeed valid, point (but I am not going to introduce a spoiler here). The bottom line is that the value of a word is intrinsically bound to what we understand it means and the arbitrator of these understanding are dictionaries and we need to abide by these or change the definition. (Even in science we have problems with terminology and many of these are continually teased out by professional scientific bodies and the international scientific unions.) What would make me happy is that if at the beginning and end of each of these Science of Discworld books the authors reminded us that the words we use are part of symbolic shorthand and that both being 'symbolic' and/or 'shorthand' they fail to completely encapsulate the true meaning of what they represent! This is part of the problem that impedes many in understanding complex matters such as climate change or quantum physics, let alone political and ethical issues of the day or the manifestation of debatable (no matter which side of the debate you are on) questions such as the existence of 'God', in short the very subject matter of these Science of Discworld books. Hence I find it is little odd that the authors themselves throw these linguistic low balls without the openness and transparency announcing that they are going to do it, and saying that words have functional limitations that are part of the perceptual challenge we face when trying to discern the nature of life, the Universe and everything. After all this is part of the overall lesson they are trying to convey.

(I hope that was not too esoteric for you.)

My second minor quibble is again one I have with the previous books in the series. There is a lack of references. They do have footnotes and these very occasionally contain a reference but a more complete set of references and notes at the end of the book would be hugely welcome, otherwise how can we follow-up on something they raise that intrigues us? For example, they bring up the intriguing notion that tiny amounts of antimatter may be produced in thunderclouds*. This is just part of the mass of fascinating stuff this book contains. Though in this particular instance they mention a researcher's name, I have no idea if this idea is simply idle speculation from the grey literature or whether there has been a paper published in a peer reviewed journal that I could seek out on the internet. Please, Ian and Jack, references and end notes. You have a great series of books, don't emasculate them.

OK. Looking back at this review I may seem to have come on strong with my two quibbles, but stress that they are quibbles and quibbles only worth making because these Science of Discworld books are so good that they deserve to be presented in the best way possible.

Entertaining, fascinating, fun, informative, a superb read, I do commend these Science of Discworld books to you irrespective of whether or not you are seriously into Discworld. These are simply treasures. Let's make the most of them while we can. Dear old Jack is getting on and Terry is facing his own demon, so we may not have this team with us for much longer. If they were up for it I really would like them to do one more in the series: perhaps an Ultimate Guide to the Science of Discworld teasing together the themes they have followed so far in this remarkable series. I wonder if they are up for it?

Jonathan Cowie

 

* And in case you are intrigued as to whether small amounts of anti-matter are produced by thunderstorm clouds, I have done a bit of on-line digging for you. First up there is a Wikipedia page on Gamma-ray flashes for what it is worth. As for peer-reviewed references then there are:-
Dwyer, Joseph R., Grefenstette, Brian W. & Smith, David M. (2008) High-energy electron beams launched into space by thunderstorms. Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2): L02815. doi:10.1029/2007GL032430.
and
Briggs, Michael S., Connaughton, Valerie, Wilson-Hodge, Colleen, Preece, Robert D., Fishman, Gerald J., Kippen, R. Marc, Bhat, P. N., Paciesas, R. Marc et al. (2011). Electron-positron beams from terrestrial lightning observed with Fermi GBM. Geophysical Research Letters 38 (2). doi:10.1029/2010GL046259
Geophysical Research Letters is a respectable middle-of-the-road journal, though it should be said that the positrons-in-thundercloud theory is speculative and there are other theories that account for the flashes from the tops of thunderclouds. Nonetheless it is an entertaining thought.


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