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Book review: Falling for Science: Asking the Big Questions

The big questions asked in Falling for Science

The big questions asked in Falling for Science

Several years ago, a philosopher friend was writing his third book and decided that, instead of targeting other philosophers as he had in the past, he’d aim this one at a more general reader. He asked me, a general reader if there ever was one, to comment on an early draft. This friend is not only an absolute brain, but a hugely interesting person and a very good writer. But when I read the draft I was driven crazy by his habit of telling me what he was going to tell me, then telling me, and then telling me that he just told me. I told him about my frustration and how in books for general readers authors don’t usually do that. “Hmm,” he said. “In philosophy books they do.”

I felt like a dope and he decided to aim his book at academics and philosophy hobbyists.

When I read Falling for Science, I had the same frustrations and again felt dopey. By page 35, I was tired of being told what I was going to be told and then being told it and then … well, I think I already told you. By the end of the book, I skimmed over any page once I felt the author, Bernard Beckett, slipping down that slope. I am not an academic reader, nor do I want to be; I just wanted to read about what Beckett learned and thought about during his year-long Royal Society teaching fellowship at the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution.

In the introduction, Beckett, a secondary teacher who is also the author of eight fiction books for young readers, asks the questions that drive his book: just what is the difference between a story and scientific explanations? And once this distinction is clarified, how do the two fit together? How can we use both in our attempts to make sense of the world?

As the book’s subtitle says, these are, indeed, big questions to ask.

Beckett spends the first part of the book indulging his love of philosophy and history and my frustration grows as we go through Heraclitus, Democritus, Descartes, Eratosthenes and Protagoras. We find out about the Pythagoreans and the Sophists; I like his modern language, but I start reading with a plummy accent when we hit Plato and Aristotle and I envisage sitting at an insanely boring dinner party where those around me volley stories of Galileo, Newton, Hume and Kant, and I consider the benefits of liquid laundry detergent versus powder.

I just don’t really care. Call me simple, call me uneducated, but I’m pleading for Beckett (who has, clearly, worked very hard to pull all of this together and I feel like a slob running him down for it) to cut through the old chaff; I want the contemporary grain. Thankfully, he catches up with me in the second half of the book and he ties some of the dusty old bits into modern debate. He uses evolutionary theory and human consciousness as platforms for his discussion and hits my feelings about certain philosophies on the head with phrases like “back on Planet Sanity …”.

I suspect Beckett is a great teacher and that his students love him. He can explain scientific theory in words that make sense, and with examples that not only appear correct but bring a chuckle. I liked the bit where he writes about why the sky is blue and uses an ADHD child as an illustration of light. I like how he explains: “Like any good scientific explanation, this also unlocks other mysteries, and gives us some nice predictions.” I like how he admits: “My neat and appealing explanation only works if I am allowed to pull some dirty tricks. Vital issues are skipped over as if they are not relevant …”

Science can provide us with data, writes Beckett, but not interpretation. For that, the book argues, we need stories. But stories can be flawed and so, too, can science. (“Science never relies upon perfect explanations, just the best so far.”)

I don’t want to be some cynical old cow saying that because I was annoyed by the author’s style I didn’t like the book, because, by the time I finished it, I did like it. And what I liked most about Falling for Science is simply that it exists. I like that a teacher spent a year poking around the laboratories, field camps and brains of a bunch of scientists and then wrote a book about it and that Longacre published it.