Stephen Jay Gould (YGtCTO Words #63)

Ever Since Darwin

Book written by Stephen Jay Gould

Science used to be popular, but now we have a category in the bookstore called popular science which receives about as much attention as the architecture books. That’s probably not fair. The architecture books wind up on the coffee table and the popular science books land on nightstands waiting for insomnia to strike. I judge unfairly, though the current New York Times #1 science book is Hidden Figures. Comparing it to all other books by a quick flip to Amazon sales ranking and it perches at #1,140. Good thing it became a movie.

I don’t see anything by Stephen Jay Gould becoming a movie, though I would love a series of documentaries. He had a magical ability to identify a topic that could be of wider interest and then present it in such a way that a layman could understand as well as enjoy, down to the illustrations which actually illuminated the subject at hand.

Stephen Jay Gould

Back before radio, when public lectures were a going concern as entertainment, working scientists performed demonstrations of all sorts- noisy electricity demonstrations and light refraction shows. Nowadays, working scientists pop up as talking heads just like other people caught in a few moments of widespread fame. The forum is different, as is our seeming attention span, and we don’t really hear them discuss their findings or how they arrived at them.

Like every other pundit,

they pontificate as much as they enlighten. Realistically, that may not be too far afield from Victorian science demonstrations, for all I know. The real difference, it seems to me, is the growth of science experts who don’t really do the science, but interpret it for us- journalists as well as those with science training, but little knowledge or appreciation of actual research, collaboration and corroboration.

So, a working scientist who writes primarily from his field of expertise for the thoughtful reader with little background in that field- can it be possible? Can he be a good writer on top of that? That is pure gold.

Gould wrote a regular column for Natural History magazine and many of his books are collections of those articles. They are outstanding examples of the science essay. By the same token, he knew his audience. No reader picked up Natural History looking for the swimsuit section, no matter how intriguing the possibility.

I suppose the best reason to read popular science and history- any good non-fiction- is to think deeply about something. The trick is finding the guide who takes you through the subject with a quick word for the potholes in the road and a nice touch for describing the scenery. The best writers stand out and leave behind knowledge that accrues for a lifetime.

Lastly, a quick afterthought- since I bothered to flip to Amazon. Who the #*!! categorized Ever Since Darwin as Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction?

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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 112 more to go.

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