Seeing Further: 350 Years of the Royal Society and Scientific Endeavour Hardcover – Nov 2 2010
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Quill & Quire
How will this fadge?
My master loves her dearly;
And I (poor monster) fond
as much on him;
And she (mistaken) seems
to dote on me.
This is from Twelfth Night, at the point where the penny drops for poor Viola. Disguised as a boy, she has been delivering love messages from Duke Orsino to Countess Olivia, but things are getting messy.
The plot devices of gender confusion and courtship via a third party that worked so well for Shakespeare are given a run for their money in Only in the Movies, a light-hearted young adult novel from William Bell of Orillia, Ontario.
Jake Blanchard is a new student at a fine arts school with a passion for filmmaking and a skill for set design and construction. Right off the bat he meets two girls. Alba is the standard object of teen crushes: tight sweater, strawberry blonde hair, no zits. She’s an actor, and a few bricks short of a load. (She thinks Shakespeare is known as “the Bard of Avonlea.”) Vanni, on the other hand, is homely and smart. Naturally, she’s a writer. Jake enlists Vanni to write love letters to Alba and feed him lines of dialogue when he arranges to meet the blonde bombshell on a bridge with Vanni hidden underneath. (Echoes of Cyrano de Bergerac.)
Complications ensue. Turns out that Vanni is a lesbian and, in the act of writing to Alba, also falls for her. (Or so Jake thinks.) And what of Alba? Her heart pines for Chad – rich, a hunk, even more bricks short of a load. Thinking that Jake is such a good writer, Alba enlists him to feed her lines to say to Chad – and it works! Chad falls for Alba, but then Chad starts two-timing her with Snowy. Then Jake has a big revelation, realizing he has loved Vanni all the time. She reveals that she isn’t a lesbian after all and has set her cap on Jake from day one, and they quote John Donne at each other (just in case we were getting tired of Shakespeare). Needless to say, it all ends well.
All of this is a lot of fun. Bell captures the group nature of teen romance: the idea that, in school cafeterias everywhere, a girl is asking another girl to find out if a guy she has a crush on has really broken up with some third girl. Thriftless sighs and women’s waxen hearts – Shakespeare got it, and so does Bell.
The novel, however, takes a long time to find its feet. In the book’s prologue, Jake ends up, by chance, on a film set, and realizes, suddenly and profoundly, that the movies are to be his life’s work – despite his father’s wish that he join the family carpentry business. All of this preliminary action is less sparkly than the scenes that follow. He writes some of his experiences as screenplays and makes references to classic films, but we just don’t believe his passion. Far better realized, ironically, is his feel for carpentry:
There was a rhythm to it: fit the shingle, hold it in place, nail it to the wall with a pneumatic power stapler – whap-whap! Every few minutes the air compressor would kick in, rattle away for a bit, then cut out with a sharp hiss. There was a light breeze off the river, and the cedar gave off a fragrance that always reminded me of summer.
In this small, poetic moment, we learn more about Jake than in the whole first act, with its heavy-handed set-up and explication. Even in the comic moments, Jake is more contractor than movie buff. In one of the funniest passages, he tries to resist Alba’s charms by conjuring mental images of strength: “stout concrete pillars, thick steel girders, those robust braided cables they use on suspension bridges … thick oak planks glued and bolted together. Cast-iron stanchions. Cement roadbeds.” By the time we get to Kevlar and titanium mesh we think Jake is going to succeed, but then Alba kisses him. Farewell, man of steel.
There is a mannered quality to all the characters in this drama, as though they were created from a collage of predetermined elements rather than allowed to grow naturally. The particularities of Vanni, for example – her combined Irish and South Asian heritage, her passion for poetry, her big nose, her lippy approach to teachers – never really coalesce. Every so often she says “eejit” or “didjever” as though to remind us of her Irishness.
This kind of farce requires a light, witty touch, and Jake’s story suffers from initial sogginess. Once the story starts to move, however, Bell’s gift for comedy (especially classroom hijinks), slapstick, and loveable nerdiness is given room to breathe.
“Bill Bryson is as amusing as ever . . . As a celebration of modern science, Seeing Further is a worthy tribute.” (The Economist)
“Traces the Royal Society’s unparalled contributions to science, celebrating not just the famous members like Isaac Newton but also the oddballs.” (Discover magazine (Hot Science))
“Bill Bryson exhibits a wealth of essays on the scientific discoveries and exploits of the Royal Society” (Vanity Fair)
“A treasure trove for lovers of science and history. These pages brim with revolutionary discoveries.” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune (A Best Book of the Year selection)) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
I'll pick up anything new by Bryson and, based on the anticipation, didn't notice the "Edited by..." His contribution is minimal and the essays are a disappointment.
The Society was to meet weekly to witness experiments and discuss scientific topics. The first Curator of Experiments was Robert Hooke. Sir Robert Moray told Charles II of this venture, and the Society obtained its first Royal Charter in 1662. In the second Royal Charter of 1663 the Society is referred to as 'The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge'.
`Science is an unending quest: as its frontiers advance, new mysteries come into focus just beyond those frontiers.'
This collection of essays celebrates the existence and achievements of the Royal Society. More than 80 Nobel Laureates have been members of the Royal Society, and its members have included Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Francis Crick. Current fellows include Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.
The essays have been written by an eclectic group of authors - including novelists (Margaret Atwood, Maggie Gee, and Neal Stephenson), historians (Georgina Ferry, Richard Holmes and James Gleick) and scientists (Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Sir Martin Rees). Other writers include Gregory Benford, Henry Petroski and Margaret Wertheim.
`Royal Society of London describes a location, not an allegiance.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The intro is by Bryson, but not anything particularly witty.
But, I'd purchased the book, I like sciency stuff and was interested in learning more about the Royal Society, so I persevered.
And, ultimately, I'm glad I did. It's a nice updated on the current state of science in the world. There are discussions of String Theory as well as updates on evolution concepts. There are interesting discussions of dead scientists as well as living ones. All the various vignettes are written by scientists and/or science writers, therefore the quality of the various stories vary depending upon whether the writer is more writer or more scientist.
All in all it's a worthwhile science book. But it isn't a Bryson book by any means.
Bill Bryson is the perfect person to have headed this project. As a general science writer Bryson is aware of how important science and the Royal Society has been to the development of modern society. Then there is the rather eclectic group of contributors that have each offered a discussion on the development of science. Authors include James Gleick, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Wertheim, Neal Stephenson, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Simon Schaffer, Richard Holmes, Richard Fortey, Richard Dawkins, Henry Petroski, Georgiana Ferry, Steve Jones, Philip Ball, Paul Davies, Ian Stewart, John D. Barrow, Oliver Morton, Maggie Gee, Stephen H. Schneider, Gregory Benford, and Martin Rees. I'd have to admit that Margaret Atwoods discussion of Jonathan Swift's Academy, and Richard Dawkins' Darwin's Five Bridges: The Way to Natural Selection is for me the highlight of the book. However, each and every chapter is eye opening and worthy of your time.
It is a difficult fact to get your head around that when the Royal Society was established in 1660 we knew so little of the causes of the physical phenomenon of our planet. Whether the topic was the causes of the tides or why summer was warmer than winter, mystery tended to shroud almost everything. The Royal Society created the scientific method thus allowing discoveries to be measured and duplicated and encouraged good scientific exploration. "Good" in this case is relative, meaning that it was better than what preceded it. "Good" by today's standard still left much to be desired.
Seeing Further is written for the general public and even the most "unscientific" of us will have no problem making sense of what is read.
Well written and containing a section devoted to further reading, Seeing Further is a fun and inspiring read.
I give it five stars after reading the whole book.
Peace to all.
Twelve men got together at Gresham College in London 350 years ago, and together founded a group dedicated to the assistance and promotion of the accumulation of knowledge. Could you imagine the difficulty of keeping such a group together for 3 ½ centuries? There was no endowment to bind them to a common cause, and no lineage of professor and student. There were wars, famine, depressions, and radical changes in government, and yet the society survived, and prospered through it all, based on the need for each of the members to add to the body of knowledge that we all benefit from today.
Bryson (he's the editor) by putting this book together has created a gift for those of us who truly appreciate great books. This story has never been told in anything approaching this kind of quality. From the exquisite artwork and graphics to the selection of contributing writers, it's first class all the way. The basis of the Royal Society was CLARITY OF EXPRESSION. They did not want scholars who were interested in impressing you with their language. It was about the power of their intellectual achievements, but people at the same time had to understand those achievements. Fortunately, the Royal Society had a succession of noteworthy secretaries who enforced clarity, a full 100 years before the English government adopted the idea of secretaries for itself.
Some of the unique characteristics of the Royal Society of London include:
* The Society was truly international in nature. That is why it is the Royal Society of London, not Great Britain. Had it been Great Britain, it might not have survived the centuries, and certainly had it survived, it would not be in its present form. It was the international flavoring that created the international acceptance.
* Prior to its formation, all science was done in Latin, the language of the ages. The Royal Society implemented the universal acceptance of English as the language of science, and it has been that way ever since.
* The Society basically invented the concept of scientific publishing with rigorous standards, and PEER REVIEW. Both concepts are still employed today universally.
* They systematized experimentation in science, and this was a revolution by itself.
* Have you ever noticed how many scientists talk using jingoistic language? To the extent that this is no longer prevalent today is the direct result of the Royal Society which argued vehemently for simple, direct language.
LAYOUT OF THE BOOK
There are 22 chapters in a narrative stretching 486 pages. There is then a list for further reading, and a list of illustrations followed by an excellent index. There are 22 outstanding authors that have contributed diverse works to this book. A few examples are James Gleick who is probably Isaac Newton's definitive biographer.
Richard Dawkins has written about Charles Darwin who was a celebrated member of the Royal Society. Paul Davies writes about the universe, and Ian Stewart writes a beautiful piece about math. It is left to Martin Rees to write about 50 years from NOW. There is not a single selection that I would not categorize as outstanding.
Bryson has also done something totally unique that I have seen employed by the publishing industy. Next to each of the 22 chapters in the book, he puts a distinctive colored bar next to the author's name. If you now hold the book closed in your hand and look at the edge of the book, the publishers have run a series of color bars along the edge of the closed pages. You literally only have to look at the color on the edging to find the chapter you want. You do not have to go by page number. It is absolutley ingenious, and amazing that no one has used this technique.
In 350 years there have been 8200 members of the Royal Society of London, that's it. Today there are approximately 1400 Fellows. There have been 69 Nobel Laureates. If you made a list of the most extraordinary members, it would be at least a page in length. Bill Bryson has once again put together a magnificent book that covers enormous ground, and reading it is an education in itself. After reading Bryson's, A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was hoping that this book would be just as good. It may be even better, because of the assortment of great minds that have contributed to it. You are going to love this book, and thank you for reading this review.
Richard C. Stoyeck
The book starts with an introductory chapter by Bill Bryson, the editor, and then follows with single-chapter contributions from many different authors, some scientists in their own right but the majority science writers, or experts in the history and/or philosophy of science. The introductory chapter describes the founding of the Royal Society and its exalted place in the history of science, and whet my appetite for more details about what the Royal Society has actually done since its founding in 1660. And indeed some of the chapters did focus on this. But many others were only tangentially (if at that) related to the Royal Society, and devoted themselves to well-written but sometimes wordy discourses on various aspects of modern science and its philosophical and sociocultural implications. These may of course interest many readers but in my opinion do not really fulfill the promise of the book's title.
I have read many such treatises over the years, but have become increasingly aware that writing about science, especially branches of science highly dependent on the language of mathematics, can never convey the essence of the topic and are plagued with the pitfalls of trying to translate mathematical grammar and syntax into English. Inevitably they are as much about the personal opinions, however sophisticated and informed, of the author as about the actual business of the science being described. This is particularly true when the topic is the philosophical or sociocultural implications of physics. My attitude toward such musings has hardened along the lines of Richard Feynman's bemused dismissal.
There's no disputing matters of taste, so if you enjoy this type of writing, you will enjoy this book. If you're looking for lots of interesting insights into what the Royal Society and its members have done since 1660, you'll probably be a bit disappointed.