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Science of Discworld II Paperback – May 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (May 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091888050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091888053
  • Product Dimensions: 11 x 2.2 x 17.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 181 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #424,013 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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Like its predecessor, The Science of Discworld II contains a short Discworld fantasy by Terry Pratchett whose chapters alternate with popular science commentary from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.

In the Discworld strand, the bickering Unseen University wizards revisit their accidental creation Roundworld--that astonishing place where there's no magic. Our world, in fact. But it's being influenced by elves (bad news in the Pratchett cosmos), who bring superstition and irrational terrors to evolving humanity. They feed on fear.

This is the cue for Stewart and Cohen to develop their ideas of stories as a shaping power in the evolution of human intelligence. Whether they're called spells, memes, creeds, theorems, artworks or lies, satisfying stories are Roundworld's equivalent of Discworld magic. It's just that it all happens in our heads: "headology" as top witch Granny Weatherwax puts it.

Struggling to make Roundworld history come out right despite elvish interference, the wizards entangle themselves in complications of time travel and must eventually beg advice from Granny. To encourage a rational attitude to facts, it seems, Roundworld needs transcendent fictions--represented, in narrative shorthand, by the works of one William Shakespeare. The trick is to make sure he gets born...

The racy exposition of the non-fiction chapters covers plenty of ground, including astrology, cargo cults, phase spaces, information theory, and the evolution of species, art, science and religion, all reflecting the human tendency not to let facts spoil a good story. Meanwhile the Discworld chapters--though sometimes disappointingly short--are fast and funny, climaxing with much unscripted action at the first night of a famous play. The Science of Discworld II is ultimately entertaining and genuinely thought-provoking, as expected from this team. Laugh and learn! --David Langford --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"A book in which the hard science is as gripping as the fiction" The Times 20040426 "Superb, neatly fulfilling its goal of introducing science without being boring of didactic. This is a genuinely mind-expanding and very funny book." Good Book Guide 20040426 "Entertaining, instructive and illuminating" New Scientist 20040426

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By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 9 2005
Format: Hardcover
Try enlivening a party with this question: "What's on your mind?" When the babble has become truly raucous, ask another: "How did it get in there?" This book is about those questions, how we came to consider them, and how we've tried to learn to understand them. Interleaving a fantasy story with analyses of scientific thinking about thinking carries certain risks. In the hands of this trio, however, the balance is successfully achieved. Don't be deceived by the name of Terry Pratchett as lead author of this volume. There are wonderful touches of humour in this book, but the basic theme is a serious question: "Who are we, and how did we get to be this way?"
This book repeats a technique used in The Science of Discworld I - two stories in parallel. Discworld is a mirror of Roundworld. The wizards used the computer Hex to construct Roundworld in SoD I. They were shocked at the many differences. Shape was only a beginning. They were confronted with the many ways in which life evolved on Roundworld. They were also forced to reflect on how illogical it seemed for living things to struggle for survival, only to be snuffed out by natural forces. In this sequel, the most advanced life form is going to be confronted with an extinction threat noted in the first book. How to deal with it? It turns out that the best solution is to ally with a great evil force.
Humanity has a strange and illogical heritage, this book tells us. As our forebears learned to cope with changing conditions on the African savannah [or on lake shores or even in the sea] they learned to stand upright, to grasp tools, and to think. This has always seemed like a long, continuous progression of small improvements over time - a process in the best Darwinian gradualist sense.
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Format: Hardcover
The authors use the Discworld setting to provide some genuine insight into the way in which we think about the world around us. This is science in the biggest sense, as a way of understanding the world and our minds, not just a set of rules for how molecules are constructed. The Discworld frame story is entertaining -- kind of slight, I suppose, but more compelling and plot driven than the frame from the previous Science of Discworld book.
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By tarotlover on Aug. 30 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I'm a total Terry Pratchett fan. So I have to read it to see what happens. It is number two of four volumes. I had to buy it to read the rest.
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1 of 19 people found the following review helpful By CG on Oct. 21 2003
Format: Hardcover
Ok first of all I love Terry Pratchett books, particularly the Discworld Series. However I really hate it when people who write reviews are not (Ali or not even) literate [sorry [...] For example the review before mine read as follows;
Reviewer: b from Bland
I haven't read it but it looks good all terry prafetchett books are goos and thir one has science 2.
Okay b from Bland maybe next time try not writing a review and then I will not make fun of you.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 22 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
The emergence of the storytelling ape Oct. 12 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Try enlivening a party with this question: "What's on your mind?" When the babble has become truly raucous, ask another: "How did it get in there?" This book is about those questions, how we came to consider them, and how we've tried to learn to understand them. Interleaving a fantasy story with analyses of scientific thinking about thinking carries certain risks. In the hands of this trio, however, the balance is successfully achieved. Don't be deceived by the name of Terry Pratchett as lead author of this volume. There are wonderful touches of humour in this book, but the basic theme is a serious question: "Who are we, and how did we get to be this way?"

This book repeats a technique used in The Science of Discworld I - two stories in parallel. Discworld is a mirror of Roundworld. The wizards used the computer Hex to construct Roundworld in SoD I. They were shocked at the many differences. Shape was only a beginning. They were confronted with the many ways in which life evolved on Roundworld. They were also forced to reflect on how illogical it seemed for living things to struggle for survival, only to be snuffed out by natural forces. In this sequel, the most advanced life form is going to be confronted with an extinction threat noted in the first book. How to deal with it? It turns out that the best solution is to ally with a great evil force.

Humanity has a strange and illogical heritage, this book tells us. As our forebears learned to cope with changing conditions on the African savannah [or on lake shores or even in the sea] they learned to stand upright, to grasp tools, and to think. This has always seemed like a long, continuous progression of small improvements over time - a process in the best Darwinian gradualist sense. This trio of authors reminds us that this picture is false for humans. After a good start, our ancestors simply halted in place, keeping social, mental and technological progress at bay. The "pause" went on for a hundred millennia. At some point about fifty thousand years ago, all that changed. We went from the "standing ape" to become "the storytelling ape". Thinking and speaking resulted in story-telling.

In trying to understand ourselves and our surroundings, Pratchett and his colleagues see humans as inventing stories for explanations of nature's mysteries. Magic, allied with the element "narrativium", runs the Discworld. On the Roundworld, magic has to be invented. Narratives are the means to bring it about and spread it around. Every human society forges its own stories which are imparted to children as "Make-A-Human Kits". Each society creates explanations which become legends which become religions as one example. While we might dispute whether we've "progressed" argue the authors, there's no question that once the process started, humans changed rapidly resulting in what we see around us today. This "advance", they argue, was not inevitable. While we may not yet understand what prompted this change, we can list alternatives and reject the impossible or implausible. That's why the Discworld parallel story comprises part of this book. It teaches you how to recognise the difference.

To long-standing Discworld fans, this book will be a serious challenge. Unlike the "laugh per page" of Pratchett's other works, he and his colleagues confront the most serious of issues: "where do we come from?" and "where are we going?". Cohen and Stewart, who have dealt these questions elsewhere, and Terry Pratchett, who posits them with every book, have produced a significant contribution in attempting an answer. The use of the parallel story line offers great opportunities for the reader to "step outside the box" and consider life and beliefs from a detached view. Pratchett has long confronted us with ourselves. Adding Cohen and Stewart's scientific and cognitive abilities to his imagination results in a compelling and informative read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Entertainment and insight in one package Oct. 15 2005
By John D. Barr - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The authors have conspired to make use of Terry Pratchett's popularity to inject some extremely thought provoking scientific theory and philosophy into the Fantasy reading community. Pratchett's Discworld characters muddle their usual way through a story that offsets the points that Stewart and Cohen make in the 'Hard Science' chapters. Stewart and Cohen maintain Pratchett's familiar voice throughout, and there are frequent references to other Pratchett stories, a feature that serious Pratchett readers will enjoy while not detracting from the enjoyment of first time readers.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Challenging and entertaining at once Oct. 22 2003
By Jeremy Jacobs - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The authors use the Discworld setting to provide some genuine insight into the way in which we think about the world around us. This is science in the biggest sense, as a way of understanding the world and our minds, not just a set of rules for how molecules are constructed. The Discworld frame story is entertaining -- kind of slight, I suppose, but more compelling and plot driven than the frame from the previous Science of Discworld book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Pan Narrans and Paranoia Jan. 11 2011
By Ciprian E. Ivanof - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am generally a fan of Terry Pratchett's work and loved the preceding merging of a Discworld story with basic scientific explanations. Sadly, as interesting as elements of the science chapters were, they became horribly tedious, rambling, and repetitive even before they got to the section on Judaism.

Like many assimilated Jews, they regard Judaism with an intense and deeply irrational paranoia. Before I continue, I should point out that I am in not way related to Jews or an adherent to Judaism. I just think that many Jews fail to understand Judaism in its intellectual and historical context.

As fascinating as a short story about a scientist using logic circuits to evolve a more advanced means of replicating a signal, the section on Pan Narrans deviated from a discussion of humans advancing by telling stories (an idea I am intrigued by as a student of History) and into a lengthy and frequently absurd complaint against Judaism. I think much if has to do with Mr. Cohen. I seriously doubt any similar complaints would be issued against Bhaal, Marduk, or Jupiter. The general gist of the complaints were that Judaism:"stiffled creativity", repressed people's spirits, was horribly legalistic, and led to religious wars. Given that the authors, like Mr. Pratchett, are atheists, these are likely key elements of their generalized view of all religion.

As a student of History (as I do not have a PhD or a specialized job, I cannot call myself a historian), I know that the various religions in the past (not to mention present) were very different. Not least of these differences was human sacrifice. Almost every society in human history has practiced human sacrifice as a legitimate means of honoring or bartering with the "gods". Judaism (and the Romans for different reasons) was radically different. People have supposed that Abraham was confused why God told him to sacrifice his son. He couldn't have been because that was NORMAL procedure among neighboring peoples. Given that Judaism prohibited human sacrifice, prostitution, and sexual slavery, I consider Judaism to have been a most favorable development in human history.

Nonetheless, Mr. Cohen seemed infuriated when an Israeli asked what it must have been like to be a descendant of the Cohens (an ancient religious caste in Hebrew society that still provided most of the rabbis and religious leaders even in the 1800's). Mr. Cohen's response was one of great shame at what his ancestors must have done in condemning other people and generally being repressive. The only real grounds I can find for such a view exist not in classical history (when the Cohens really existed as a religious office) but in the sometimes insular world of the polish shtetl where some Jewish communities were dominated by charismatic rabbis with more influence that sense. Even still, others shtetles had more reasonable rabbis who did not threaten to cast people out for disagreeing. I suspect that Mr. Cohen is unreasonably conflating the two periods in his mind and fails to understand the moral philosophy of Judaism. One of the excellent points made in the book (or is it the earlier book?) is that under polytheism, you needed a theopsychologist to understand the weather. Monotheists just needed a regular observation of the weather because they assumed some continuity in natural laws.

There are wonderful elements in the book. The idea of Pan Narrans is interesting (although like many people excited by their ideas, they go too far and assume it explains everything) and is worth considering. Many smaller lessons such as the process of evolution and the nature of life is portrayed in a wonderfully simple and easy to understand manner. The book outside of Pan Narrans and Mr. Cohen's rant is a good and worthwhile read. I would have given it four stars had it not been for the repetitiveness of their Pan Narrans idea and the historically absurd accusations against Judaism.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Homo Narrans Explained March 4 2007
By James D. DeWitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The goal, I suppose, is to make science more attractive to readers. The approach is for Terry Pratchett to write a chapter and then for Stewart and Cohen to write a chapter explicating science principles out of Pratchett's story. The science in this case is sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics and, heaven help us, sociobiology. You'll note those are soft sciences.

Pratchett's premise is that the evil Elves have invaded Roundworld, using it to their nasty ends. It's up to the wizard faculty of Unseen University, aided by Hex, the Discworld's equivalent of a computer, to save the day. After several false starts, one of them resulting in the memorable Shell Midden People, the Wizards hit on a way to save the day: instead of Arthur J. Nightingale being Roundworld's greatest playwright, they'll slide in a ringer named William Shakespeare. It's not Pratchett's most inspired effort, but it does have its moments.

But Practhett's far better than Stewart and Cohen. Their premise is that, while there may not be any narrativium on Roundworld, it is stories that make us human; that instead of Homo sapiens we should be called Homo narrans. That without the spark of story, the stories we invent about ourselves and the world around us, we wouldn't be any better off than the Shell Midden People.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has read "Hogfather," which does a much better job of making this point. But then Stewart and Cohen are constrained by Roundworld science, and Pratchett gets to use the Discworld.

For those of us familiar with the canon works, the near omnipotence of Hex is a little disturbing. For those of us familiar with literature, despite Stewart's and Cohen's contention, there are other important authors than Shakespeare. On the other hand, the correspondence between the power of narrative on the Discworld and the role of story-telling in our culture is well-developed. But that's unsurprising. Pratchett's Discworld has always a funhouse mirror of our world. He uses that funhouse mirror of to make points about our world. Which leaves Stewart and Cohen, in this case, in the unenviable position of explaining to the audience how the magician does his tricks.

I applaud any effort to increase the reach of science, to make it accessible, interesting and attractive. The effort here isn't wholly successful, and the science is soft, but still the book is worth the read.


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