The borders which once divided the scientific from the artistic imagination have been breached-by the scientists. John Carey, a professor of English at Oxford, pays tribute to a new literary genreby John Carey / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
The writing of popular science has improved immensely in recent decades. Writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, Peter Medawar, Stephen Hawking, Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins have transformed the genre, combining expert knowledge with an urge to be understood which bridges the intelligibility gap to delight and instruct huge readerships. In the process, they have created a new kind of late 20th century literature which demands to be recognised as a separate genre, distinct from the old literary forms, and conveying pleasures and triumphs of its own.
True, these writers had predecessors in the 19th century-TH Huxley or Charles Darwin himself-who also strove to reach the general reading public. But in the mid-19th century the general reading public was a much smaller and more select group than it is now. The popular science books that succeed today represent achievements of a remarkable and unprecedented kind. Nor is it clear on what grounds they can be reckoned inferior to novels, poems and other representatives of the older genres. In what respect, for example, is a masterpiece like Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker imaginatively inferior to a distinguished work of fiction such as Martin Amis’s Einstein’s Monsters (or the hundreds of lesser novels which jam the publishers’ lists each year)? Both are clearly the products of brilliant minds; both are highly imaginative; and Amis is more excited by scientific ideas than most contemporary writers. Nevertheless, the essential distinction between them seems to be that between knowledge and ignorance. From the viewpoint of late 20th century thought, Dawkins’s book represents the instructed, Amis’s the uninstructed imagination.
When I pointed this out recently in the introduction to my Faber Book of Science (1995), I was attacked by Bryan Appleyard in the Independent, who took issue not only with my preference of Dawkins to Amis, but, more fundamentally, with my claim that science writing exists as a separate genre. The desperation evident in Appleyard’s arguments should, however, hearten all those who find his persistent antagonism to science misconceived. I have (so he says) failed to appreciate that all writers write about science and have been doing so for the last 400 years. Flaubert and Blake, John Ashbery and Samuel Beckett-all are science-writers, by Appleyard’s standards. To substantiate this curious proposal he explains that all writers “write about the world as they find it, and what they find is…