"This book is about 'science as storytelling.' The title tacitly assumes that there is a need for communicating science to people outside the narrow realm of specialists, and for counteracting the reputation of science as an exclusive, inaccessible (and boring) enterprise." -- p. 126Mission to Abisko is a collection of some of the essays that were presented at a conference held in Abisko, Sweden in May of 1997. While the titles of the book and many of the essays are provocative--most of the essays themselves are anything but. The above quote describes what I wanted to read about. Few of the essays actually met such a focus, and those that did usually offered little.
The longest two essays (not counting "Secret Narratives of Mathematics" which included a fifteen page appendix) were also my favorite and least favorite essays. "Beyond This Horizon" by Gregory Benford is very intriguing. It includes similar elements to Children of Prometheus in many ways including the future possibility (probability?) of human genetic manipulation. I'm not sure if I agree with Benford's 'prophecies' (and he may not either), and all the ethical implications are not covered in depth, but the discussion is interesting and well executed. His section on cloning is very well done--especially given its brevity.
The longest essay, taking up nearly one fourth of the book, is Per-A. Johansson's "Algorithmic and Ascetic Storytelling". This was my least favorite essay. What starts out as a decent piece on what Johansson terms the "strongly coherent, in rational terms" view of Darwinian Evolution quickly becomes an apologetic, anti-scientific piece of pantheistic, Christian proselytizing. Ultimately, Johansson concludes that the ends justify the means--even if the means are based on faith and fancy. A plea for theism is not what most readers of a popular science book are probably looking for. Once we get to the point of hearing that "one should avoid thinking in terms of 'describing the world'" (p. 73), the post-modernist babble becomes almost too much to take. In what is supposed to be critique of Richard Dawkins, Johansson pays the Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford a huge unintentional compliment by saying
Richard Dawkins argues incisively against what he calls 'the Argument from Personal Incredulity'. What he doesn't mention (does he even notice it?) is that his own argument for universal Darwinism can as well be labeled an 'Argument from Rational Credulity,' i.e., a credulity based on reason and nothing but reason. -- p. 73 italics in originalI think Dawkins would be glad to know that at least one of his critics views his arguments as being based solely on reason. Why would a scientist want to argue from any other position?
Casti's essay on how to write a 'scientific fiction' book will be of interest to many science writers. I enjoyed Doubt and Certainty which used a similar format to the one Casti suggests and am looking forward to reading Casti's other works which employ such a creative scientific writing style.
Kjell Jonsson's telling of how Einstein was only slowly received into Swedish culture is fascinating. Certainly science influences culture and culture influences science. Perhaps this essay did more to stick to the book's subtitle than any of the other essays.
Overall the book lacked a point of convergence (as is sometimes the case when essays by different authors are collected into a single volume). The work in total is rather ho-hum. The gems are too few and too far between.
From the publisher:
We all know well that the science the general public learns is based upon what scientists and journalists tell us in newspapers, magazines, books, and television. But what is not so apparent is that the science that scientists themselves learn, even the paradigms they create, is also based on the stories they tell each other. Twelve top scientists who gathered in Abisko, north of the Arctic Circle, examine the phenomenon of science as storytelling in this fascinating book. With chapters crafted to both instruct and delight—for example, "Frankenstein's Daughters" and "Einstein at the Amusement Park"—Mission to Abisko is a must-read for anyone curious about our perception of scientific "truth."
John L. Casti is a faculty member of both the Santa Fe Institute and the Technical University
of Vienna, and the author of numerous popular science books such as The Cambridge
Quintet, Would-Be Worlds, and Five Golden Rules. Anders Karlqvist is Director of the Polar
Research Secretariat of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and an adjunct professor at
the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
With Contributions by John Barrow, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, John L. Casti, Jack Cohen, Per-A. Johansson, Lennart Lundmark, Paul McAuley, Bengt Nagel, Larry Niven, Tor
Nørretranders, and Ian Stewart.
With Contributions by John Barrow, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, John L. Casti, Jack Cohen, Per-A. Johansson, Lennart Lundmark, Paul McAuley, Bengt Nagel, Larry Niven, Tor Nørretranders, and Ian Stewart.