Non-Fiction Reviews


The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch

(2005) Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, Ebury Press, 17.99, hrdbk, 344 pp, ISBN 0-091-89823-4

 

There are science books, popular science books, quasi-science books and the Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart informative musings: musings, it has to be said, that are rather entertaining. With any 'normal' popular science book there is a subject adhered. With the science of Discworld there is a subject but it really is weaved into an underlying fabric so that the reader seems to get from 'a' to 'b' not so much by a logical sequence of events or story but some sort of magic carpet. This is not entirely inappropriate for a Discworld book and, make no mistake, this is also a Discworld book. What the two scientists have done is to (again) team up with best-selling author Terry Pratchett. Surely this is a commercially deft move. Terry for his part has produced a Discworld novelette that is imparted to the reader in chunks of several pages at a time between chapters of popular science and the authors' personal perceptions of life the universe and everything, but mainly life and society. This could be a recipe for disaster, but it is not. In the main (but probably not always) Jack Cohen provides the biology and flights of fancy, Ian Stewart tempers the latter while adding a mathematical perspective with his own sense of the exotic, and Terry the Discworld dimension. It works, and the proof of the pudding is that this is the 3rd book in the series.

In Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch not surprisingly the underlying fabric is Darwin and his theory of evolution. Here, in Pratchett's Discworld, the wizards are worried that the multiverse appears to be throwing up as the dominant universe one that never saw Darwin write his famous book on evolution. Instead Darwin did other things but never brought evolution to the fore of the Victorian world. Why was Darwin's work so important? What did the man say? Also, how does this relate to society and indeed other developments in science and technology?

The book itself is relatively easy to read though a little rambly, but this last is more than made up for by the entertaining scenery the writers provide. Along the way we cover such gems as one of the first SF stories about time travel that appeared in the New York Sun in 1881 (before Wells' famous novel) and that black holes were essentially theorised in a Royal Society journal in 1783 by one John Michell. We learn all about various theories as to the nature of the universe, infinity and, of course evolution. Many of the musings are interesting. For example, why is it that it is physicists and astronomers who tend to get to pontificate in books, chat shows and conventions on possible extra-terrestrial life and not biologists and life scientists? (Jack has previously presented this concern here in Concat'.)

Problems with the book? Well really only a couple. First I have never liked the sensational language the authors tend to use. I guess this is to grab the reader. But referring to Darwin's (Pre-Origins) earlier work as 'wrong books' when the authors actually mean his non-theory of evolution books is a bit much. Second, is the lack of references. They do have footnotes, so why not references? However, while for me these bugs are annoying, they will not, I am fairly sure, prevent the average reader from enjoying the intellectual roller-coaster Darwin's Watch provides.

I do hope that many Discworld readers (and there are a lot of them) get this book. Indeed I hope this particularly if they are not that much into science. Darwin's Watch may turn them on to one of the most fascinating areas of human achievement (science) that has powered our species development to a standard of living undreamed of, say, three short centuries ago: a flicker in our species, let alone the Universe's, existence. But the book is not just accessible to Discworld readers. The Discworld bits are sufficiently self-contained that non-Discworld readers can skip them. (Sacrilege I hear some of you cry but, hey, you would not surely expect everyone to have exactly the same tastes as you? Especially as one of the book's fundamental arguments is for individual diversity.) In short this is a work that can be enjoyed by Pratchett fans and non-fans alike. All you need is a slightly weird sense of perspective and it all nearly, so very nearly, begins to make sense. Nice one lads. I'm looking forward to book four in the series. Meanwhile I hope Ebury puts Darwin's Watch forward for the Aventis book prize.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Science of Discworld 4.


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