The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

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Release Date: 
June 15, 2010
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

Richard Dawkins is one of the most popular and widely read scientists alive today. Anyone who has read The Selfish Gene, or The Blind Watchmaker, will understand why. He has clarity of mind, coupled with a clarity of style, that enables him to express the most complex ideas with simplicity and eloquence. It is not surprising then, to find that Dawkins admires these same traits in others and that he turns out to be the ideal curator to assemble an anthology of writings by fellow scientists.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is a large collection of short extracts from the writings of many eminent scientists. There are scores of extracts and every one of them (barring just one or two) is a gem. Each one of them may make you wish the extract were longer. Each one of them may make you want to go to the original book and read the whole thing. It is an impressive collection. Think of a big name in any field of science and he or she is likely to be represented in this book.

Dawkins has done an excellent job of discovering and collating some beautiful, fascinating, and inspiring pieces of writing from a very broad spectrum of scientists. I wish that more writers of fiction could write as well as these scientists! My personal favorite scientist-writers were all there, from Edward O. Wilson to David Deutsch, Loren Eiseley to Peter Medawar, along with all the most popular and gifted scientist-writers of our age (including Stephen Pinker, Donald Johanson, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Roger Penrose, and so many others.) What’s more, Dawkins introduces each and every piece with a few comments of his own, setting it in context, explaining its inclusion, or simply reminiscing about the author—more than compensating for the fact that Dawkins has, modestly, not included extracts from his own brilliant corpus.

It’s not a perfect collection—it could have run to many more volumes—and never have done full justice to the wealth of great science and science writing that is out there. It could have included more scientists (it was sad that Max Born wasn’t included, for example) and, perhaps, had more from fields such as psychology. There was a slight biological science bias, I must say. There is probably scope for a companion volume to include only science writing for young people, since little of that was included in this book. Science writing by professional writers (as opposed to professional scientists) was deliberately excluded by Dawkins. He wanted to give us the original voice of the worker in the field. Another companion volume, perhaps?

The publisher might like to consider an enhanced ebook edition, if only to make its varied content more easily searchable, although Dawkins does a good job of indexing the volume. An ebook edition that linked to all the source texts, writer biographies, and writer bibliographies, would be a treasure indeed!

And this is the kind of book that readers will treasure. One that will become well thumbed over the years as you dip into it to savor again some of your favorite pieces. It doesn't have a prepossessing title and the cover is pretty dull but this is a book full of wonderful things. It is written—and written well!—by some of the greatest minds of the 20th and 21st Centuries.