10 March 2014

Science without the fiction

I know I've told the story of meeting and talking to Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Leakey. They were speakers and I was an attendee at a conference. The three of us were in the shelter of a building where Leakey and I could smoke. Gould just wanted to talk to Leakey. So did I. So I hung out with them for a few minutes. I must have told the story in the ancient printed version of this blog because the only reference I can find to the story online is in Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 - 2002.

After meeting Gould, I began reading his essays. Books full of them. They were (are) masterpieces of exposition and art. One of my favorites is Dousing Diminutive Dennis's Debate, arguing, years before the millennium, for the the importance of the year 2001.

Recently I picked up a book of essays by one of Gould's successors at Natural History, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I'm impressed by Tyson's interviews and good humored appearances on television. I wrote about one of his essays here last year, More non-fiction .

The book I picked up was Death by Black Hole. Tyson, is good. He's not Stephen Jay Gould great, but perhaps no one will ever be. Some of the same questions I asked when I last read "The Importance of Being Constant" rose in my head when I read it this time. Go look at my physicist daughter's response.

Tyson won me over in an early essay by noting that "One of the challenges of scientific inquiry is knowing when to step back -- and how far back to step -- and when to move in close... A raft of complications sometimes points to true complexity and sometimes just clutters up the picture." That's an important lesson I strive to teach students.

Over and over Tyson points out lessons like that. Sometimes his analogies are too complex and sometimes his explanations are inadequate for my little brain. But I enjoy what I read and I learn things. But I didn't finish the book yet.

It has to go back to the library. I might have finished it, but Eric Johnson lent me Junkyard Planet (see below), and I wanted to read about recycling and see what my former student had written. I might check Death by Black Hole out again and finish it. But right now I'm sated on non-fiction, and I have two new books on my shelf.

So have you read Death by Black Hole or other essays by Tyson? What did you think of them? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

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