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Review - Curious Minds/When We Were Kids: How a Child becomes a Scientist - John Brockman (Ed) 

 

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This is a book that seems to try to shoot itself in the foot, which is a shame, because it is truly fascinating reading.

Let's see why it's good first. It contains twenty-seven pleasantly bite-sized essays on the way the individuals concerned came to science. All too often an edited collection like this is dull and academic - this one isn't. There's a huge range of approaches, and each is personal, unique and readable. While the only overall conclusion you might draw is 27 people came to science 27 different ways (and as Steven Pinker points out in his essay, memories from childhood are inevitably tainted anyway), it doesn't matter because the stories are brilliant.

There are plenty of surprises. Richard Dawkins, for instance, who usually comes across as an almost inhumanly stiff personality, opens up as he reveals the influence of Doctor Doolittle (the books, not the film). Physicist Lee Smolin intrigues with a little piece entitled  "A Strange Beautiful Girl in a Car" while others tell of their extraordinary (and sometimes very intimidating sounding) families. It's particular fascinating when Margaret Mead's daughter talks about her mother's work without ever mentioning Mead's total disaster of misinformation.

On the down side, the book has two problems. The lesser one is a lack of balance. Of the 27 scientists, 17 are from the "softer" sciences (I'm including biology) with only 8 from the hard sciences and maths. If you are doubting my math, I'd suggest two aren't scientists at all, they're technologists. This isn't a put down, but science and technology aren't the same thing. Science is bounded by philosophy on one side and technology on the other, and it is quite distinct. To misquote Lewis Wolpert (who may have been quoting someone else), nature isn't a scientist. No science went into designing an elephant - it's all technology, however superb the outcome. Science is all "how?" and "why?". Technology is "what [can we do with it]?"

The bigger problem is one of image. The title sounds dull. The US main title is better than the UK, but the subtitle is the killer. "How a Child becomes a Scientist". I'm asleep already. The UK cover with its intentionally dated look, looks... dated. And in the end we have to ask, fascinating though the book genuinely is, who is going to want to buy it? People doing history or philosophy of science courses. Maybe anthropologists. Freeman Dyson groupies. (Aren't there Freeman Dyson groupies?) But it really isn't going to appeal to many popular science readers. The very format forces that. As soon as you see that dreaded "Ed." after the "author's" name it loses credibility as a readable book. Oh well, what can I say? I enjoyed it. If you can't bring yourself to buy it, get it out of the library and be pleasantly surprised.

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Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007