Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Science of the Discworld III: Darwin's Watch by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen

The Sciences are books that I don't read for Pratchett's contributions, in fact in this one and the second I've found the fiction chapters to be lacklustre at best. The wizards amuse me, but the wizards always amuse me.

No, what I enjoy is having the comparison between a fictional world, and our own. Narrativium is an element I understand, and the resulting contrast means that the science served up I find easier to swallow.

Most of the time.

The theme of this Science was evolution, although for reasons I never quite grasped, several chapters were spent dwelling on time travel. At first, I was interested (who isn't?), and although physics normally makes me shriek and run away, I stuck with it. It was interesting to learn about all these theories on how time travel could theoretically possible, usually involving cutting black holes and white holes in half and sticking them together, or folding space into a tube, but I had to wonder how anyone arrived at these theories. The practicality of all of them was non-existent. Perhaps because I am a physics pleb, but rolling space into a tube doesn't seem like a possible or even practial thing to do.

Then, however, it moved on to string theory.

Sweet mercy, given me quantum, please! Whilst I think I may have grasped a hazy idea of what they thought they were talking about, that's all it is. String theory seems even less practical than cutting black holes in half. I remember branes, and I remember Goldilocks, and that's all. Mostly, I found it a bit disappointing that I just didn't get it, but I don't think String Theory exists for bum-wannabe-writers to get.

Once free of string theory, it was smooth sailing. The chapters detailing Darwin's life were fascinating (barnacles! ha!), and especially the notion of 'steam engine time'. It was something I noticed before the concept actually appeared in the book; regardless of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, it looked as though the concept of evolution was stirring the water, and would have found an outlet in any other of a number of people if Darwin hadn't trod the path he did. Time, progress, science create the conditions that make some inventions/discoveries/ideas just about inevitable. Like steam engine time (so many people were making steam engines, it was only because Watt had the money to make lots of them that he gets the credit).

But, I don't feel I came out of the book haven't had the boundaries of my mind reset. Sure, string theory made a mess in my head, but in regards to the rest, I don't look at the world any differently. It was an interesting read, and I picked up many useless/useful facts, but I wasn't blown away.

Except possibly about the barnacles. That still makes me laugh.

Verdict: interesting, amusing, easy to read. 'cept for the string theory.

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