Monday, December 15, 2003

Dueling Science Books

Is it fair to review a book that you didn't finish? It's not because of the book -- well, not entirely -- but only because with an infant son, I tend not to finish books from the "New Releases" section from the library.

Two recent (well, somewhat recent) science books cover very similar territory and use a very similar device. It's pretty common in science writing to start off by saying something like, "To understand this issue, we'll have to travel to the moons of Jupiter, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the source of the Amazon..." or some such. It's a useful and sometimes effective gimmick. I took a class while I was in college advertised as being about "Time Travel;" in fact, it was just an excuse to visit the usual topics of metaphysics. Every year the professor came up with a new theme gimmick, and, in his words, used it like a coathook to hang the same syllabus. It was successful.

The two books that use this are Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, and In the Blink of an Eye, by Andrew Parker. Rare Earth is a good book, made especially interesting because it stakes out ground -- that any life more complex than bacteria is unlikely to exist except on Earth -- that is at odds with mainstream thought. Blink (which I've mentioned here before) touches a similarly interesting idea, a proposed explanation for the Cambrian explosion, but is less successful. Each is making an important argument about the nature of life and its evolution on earth.

To explain their main theses, each book covers a wide variety of topics, including geology, optics, astrophysics, paleontology, archaeology, and evolution, among others. However, they structure their argument in opposite ways. Rare Earth sets out its thesis in clear terms in the introduction, and then, piece by piece, sets out the evidence supporting it. Each chapter nails the idea a little more, until the reader is solidly convinced that they must be right (of course, they might not be). Blink, however, is structured like a mystery; each chapter provides a clue, which Parker coyly suggests will lead to the shocking conclusion. This is irritating in two ways: one, the conclusion is revealed on the dust jacket, and two, it means that Parker can't directly connect his reasoning with his conclusions the way Ward and Brownlee do. It makes for a frustrating reading experience, because each chapter feels like an arbitrary topic, and the reader is uncertain how to understand it. It's a basic rule of pedagogy that a teacher must provide a framework into which the student can place new facts, and Parker doesn't do a good job doing that.

Worse, Parker makes a couple of really, really basic science errors. Dr. Parker, bats do not use radar to find their prey. The Hawaiian islands are not at a plate boundary. Errors like this make one doubt, however unfairly, the accuracy of the rest of the science. Because of these problems, I didn't finish Blink before it was due back at the library. Perhaps it improved in the last few chapters.