Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dissecting the universe

[This is an essay I did for Forbes Life magazine about popular-science books, including works by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and V S Ramachandran. Have written about some of these books at greater length earlier; see links at the bottom of the post]


As a child I had an almost crippling dread of science, perpetuated largely by the textbooks shoved down our throats in school. Here were difficult-to-understand concepts expressed in dry, pedantic language; one got the sense of having to constantly dissect...not just crawly things in the biology lab, but ideas that seemed irrelevant to our everyday lives. The theories and explanations seemed calculated to take the joy out of things - it was a bit like being told you couldn’t play cricket in the park unless you knew the parabolic equation that described the arc of every delivery bowled by a spinner.

At the time my only voluntary reading about the natural world was Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. Durrell’s Corfu – the little Greek island where he spent his idyllic childhood – was one of the classic literary Edens, alongside Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree and P G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle. His books married the sense of wonder one found in Blyton’s tales with engaging facts about all manner of real-world creatures, from garden geckos to dung beetles. Even his impromptu disembowelment of a turtle carcass (the stink causing his family to hyperventilate) was rivetingly told, right down to his discovery of nearly-formed eggs in the cadaver’s innards.

These were not “science” books, narrowly defined, but they were refreshing alternatives to textbooks, made even more fun by the sense that Durrell took pleasure in the writing; that he had a creative side. (Later I learnt that these were, in fact, embellished memoirs with a few factual discrepancies.) And here arises another point: someone who develops an early interest in the arts might become wary of science because it seems to take morbid pleasure in deflating human pride; in reminding us that we are not the centre of all things, that our cultural achievements amount to a grain of sand in a desert a million times larger than the Sahara.

But where old worlds close, others open up. Much of the popular-science writing I’ve discovered as an adult has revealed pathways to new treasures. Take the work of Richard Dawkins, the very title of whose Unweaving the Rainbow is based on John Keats’s observation that science had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by “explaining” its colours. Dawkins’s books are an elegant riposte to this idea. Most of his writing is in the field of evolutionary biology, and for a layman the best is perhaps the essay collection Climbing Mount Improbable – “Mount Improbable” being a metaphor to explain the illusion of design in living things. My favourite section is about the eye: with the aid of diagrams made by his wife, the actress-illustrator Lalla Ward, Dawkins explains how this most intricate of organs has evolved independently in various parts of the animal kingdom, from its most primitive forms in single-celled organisms billions of years ago (“...eyes so simple that they scarcely deserve to be recognized as eyes at all. It is better to say that the general body surface is slightly sensitive to light”) to the critical step that was the evolution of the lens. Elsewhere, there are analyses of how wings and spider webs came into existence, and descriptions of astonishing feats of mimickry in the insect world.

Dawkins gets bad press from those who find his anti-religion writings strident, but in his popular-science writing he often (and only part-ironically) uses phrases that evoke conventional religion, which points to the reverence he feels for his own subject: “The Forty-Fold Path to Enlightenment” (to describe the steps in the eye’s evolution), “The Devil’s Chaplain”, “River Out of Eden”, and most notably, “A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life” as the subhead of his excellent book The Ancestor’s Tale, in which – channelling Chaucer’s pilgrims – he takes us backward in time through billions of years until we reach the point where the paths of all creatures alive today converge. His achievement here is to make the personal struggles of even a tapeworm or the rhizobium bacteria stimulating, and to remind us of how closely linked we are to every other form of life.

Similar views about interconnectedness and about the majesty of scientific “revelation” are echoed by Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot (the title is a reference to an ephemeral, vulnerable-looking Earth as seen in a galactic photograph taken by a spacecraft 3.7 billion miles away). In one terrific chapter, Sagan imagines an alien visitor orbiting our planet for the first time and trying to understand its topography and possible life presence. Simply by writing from the point of view of an outsider who has no prior knowledge about Earth, he shakes many of our cosy certainties. From space, he notes, it’s possible to observe the effects of such things as bovine flatulence, but “so much of our monumental architecture, our great engineering works, are efforts to care for one another, are wholly invisible. It’s a kind of parable.”

Eventually the alien (who is forbidden to come too close to Earth’s surface) concludes that the multi-coloured beings it sees moving in orderly formation along criss-crossing lines are the planet’s main life forms (though any human reader
will recognise them as road vehicles). At a stronger resolution, it observes “tiny parasites that occasionally enter and exit the dominant organisms”, but it doesn’t think of them as particularly important. One recalls another, very different sort of book, Douglas Adams’s manic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the alien Ford Prefect chooses his name thinking it will help him stay inconspicuous because this car is surely the planet’s dominant creature!


The American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, a contemporary of Dawkins (with whom he had much-publicised differences of opinion on evolutionary theory specifics) and Sagan, was a dauntingly erudite man and some of his writing requires specialised knowledge. But for the beginning reader I recommend the anthology The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (edited by Paul McGarr and Steven Rose). The essays included here (under such subheads as “Autobiography” and “Racism, Scientific and Otherwise”) are a good representative sample of Gould’s writing career and principal concerns (including his famous love for baseball!), but his strengths are especially on view in two pieces about famous hoaxes.

In “The Lying Stones of Marrakech”, he writes insightfully about the early 18th century professor Adam Beringer who was deceived by fabricated fossils depicting heavenly objects and other wonders. And in “The Piltdown Conspiracy” – about the 1912 fraud involving the discovery of skull fragments that appeared to have belonged to a proto-human creature – he engages in a skilful investigation complete with suppositions and presentation of evidence to support the possibility that the respected priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had been involved in the deception. Like all of Gould’s best pieces, these essays work on multiple levels: as character studies, as meditations on guilt and remorse, and as elegies for promising careers misdirected or ruined.

Great scientists like Gould can be intimidating figures if you first encounter them as middle-aged men expertly giving lectures on difficult subjects – and so, it can be comforting to read a book that traces an individual’s journey from the point where a subject started to fascinate him. The celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks has written at length about his encounters with unusual medical conditions (notably in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), but my favourite among his works involves a branch of science that he didn’t specialise in. His memoir Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood is about a childhood interest that began with a visit to a lightbulb-manufacturing factory run by an uncle; here, little Oliver became obsessed with the metal tungsten, which alone seemed resistant to the corrosive effects of mercury. “Don’t worry,” his uncle said to him, “If I put this little bar of tungsten in the mercury, it would not be affected at all – it would be just as bright and shiny a million years from
now.” Tungsten, muses the boy in an unusual but poignant case of adolescent hero-worship, was a rare stable thing in a very precarious world.

The subject of one of Sacks’ best-known articles, “An Anthropologist on Mars”, was Temple Grandin – a woman who was diagnosed with autism as a child and went through a long struggle to understand how her condition made her different from most other people. Along the way, Grandin realised that her autism was “a way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English”. She has done far-reaching work in the fields of animal behaviour and welfare, helping to revolutionise techniques used in the US livestock industry, and her book Animals in Translation provides many insights into the inner lives and perceptual skills of animals.

One of the book’s motifs is the inattentional blindness of “normal” people, whose brains convert details into words and abstractions – whereas autistic people (and animals) tend to be visual thinkers who process details. This helps explain the startling results of visual experiments such as “Gorillas in our Midst”, where 50 percent of the people watching a short video failed to see a man in a gorilla suit even though he was right in front of them. Or the scary flight-simulation tests where a significant percentage of trained pilots don’t see a plane parked on the runway they are about to land on. The gorilla project was executed by the experimental psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, and in their own book The Invisible Gorilla, they discuss the repercussions of the experiment, placing it in the context of real-life incidents such as the case of a policeman who failed to see his colleagues beating up an innocent man right in front of his eyes (he was chasing a criminal at the time).

Of course, such experiments are never foolproof – scientific assertions are always open to being revised in the light of fresh evidence. Inevitably, then, most of these books contain reminders that facts we take for granted today had not even yet been imagined in the world of a few hundred years ago. Matthew Cobb’s The Egg & Sperm Race – about the 16th and 17th century European biologists who gradually unraveled the secrets of birth – is a good example. The heroes of Cobb’s story (written mostly in the style of a compelling narrative) include men like Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam, who made pioneering contributions to the understanding of the human egg; and the Dutch draper Antoni Leeuwenhoek, who used a microscope to examine his own semen (less than “six beats of the pulse” after ejaculation), and discovered “a vast number of living animalcules...moving about with a snake-like motion of the tail”. Cobbs never lets us forget that these men worked in the face of enormous odds, including primitive technology and theological opposition. Even the most brilliant thinkers of the time genuinely believed that insects, and some small animals, came into being through “spontaneous generation”. There were proposed “recipes” for creating toads (they could be fashioned from the corpses of ducks placed on a dung heap!) and snakes (put a woman’s hair in a damp but sunny place).

We’ve come a long way since then, but much remains to be discovered. “What a unique privilege it will be for our generation, and our children’s,” writes V S Ramachandran in the preface to Phantoms in the Brain, “to witness what I believe will be the greatest revolution in the history of the human race: understanding ourselves.” Ramachandran’s territory – like Oliver Sacks’s – is the human brain, and his book is a compendium of incredible case studies involving phantom limbs (patients “experiencing” sensations of pain in their amputated arms), false pregnancies (with every symptom of true pregnancy – except the baby) and stimulated temporal lobes which facilitate a “God experience”. He details his own treatments of some of these cases, including what might be “the first successful amputation of a phantom limb” by using a transposing mirror to trick the sufferer’s brain. His book, like all the others mentioned here, allows the reader to step out of his own head for a while, and to consider the strange fact that we simian-like creatures – still so limited in many ways – have the capacity to think about the nuts and bolts of the universe, our place in it, and even understand the delusions that our minds might experience. If that isn't both mystical and uplifting, what is?

[Some related posts: Charles Darwin the good novelist; Richard Dawkins on coincidences; Stephen Gould and optimum size; the egg-and-sperm race; climbing Mount Improbable]


  1. 1. Recommended reading: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
    2. Douglas Adams is God.

  2. Abhishek: yes, I only had space in the piece for around 10 titles - had to leave out Bryson and a few other favourites. Also, wanted to focus on books that covered specific subjects.

  3. It has been a while, I have been following your blog-posts (- a silent voyeur?). Surely this is not your best Canto, and it is not that I have been suddenly inspired to be communicative. But after a day that had been deemed begone, almost, you brought a wonderful childish smile along, and you gave heart to not close down my writing for the day; the universe is perennial and surprising, my regards to you for reminding the clairvoyance...

  4. Very minor critique: this piece feels disjointed compared to your other genre evaluation style essays. There is some abruptness in the transitions.
    However, I like the way you ended it. That is as good a reason as any not to feel the need for a grey-haired, punitive and judgmental old man for your life to have meaning.
    I wish someone wrote as eloquently about macromolecular biology though. I guess we can't have it all.
    Have you seen the short "Duelity" yet? I liked the flipping of interpretation with respect to the origin myths. A tad over-simplified but neat nevertheless.

  5. this piece feels disjointed compared to your other genre evaluation style essays

    Sonia: yes, to some extent that is built into this format: writing about 10 books in a 2000-word-space. I'm a little happier with my second column on true-crime books (which I'll only be able to put up here after a couple of months).

    Btw, which other genre-evaluation-style essays did you mean? This one is the first piece of its sort that I've posted here.

  6. No, haven't seen "Duelity" - sounds fascinating...

  7. On second thought, it could be a product of the way I organize things in my mind. It is not absolute in any way. I sort of put a number of your essays, multiple versions of the Mahabharata( which was fascinating and useful all at once), Ringu+Japanese fiction, action sequences in film, book to film adaptations and a couple of others, into a sort of loose category: Recaps and genre evaluation. I think it is mainly because of the meta (sort of) narrative. However, missed the fact that it was for a magazine. I dived right into the piece.
    Crime fiction: sounds awesome! I just finished reading "The best American noir of the century" and it was mind-blowing. A lot of experimentation mixed with traditional narratives. Great reco from this blog and much more satisfying than the Harlan Ellison Sci-fi anthology. I expected things to be the other way around considering the range of possibilities in Sci-fi but save a few, very repetitive fare.
    And about "Duelity", I have mentioned the link in my first comment. I'm sorry if I was not clear. It's barely a minute but a "hmmm...interesting" sort of thing. Courtesy: my friend Hathi (Nikhil)

  8. ...much more satisfying than the Harlan Ellison Sci-fi anthology

    Sonia: interesting coincidence: just yesterday I reread Ellison's "Mefisto in Onyx" in the noir anthology. And a few weeks ago I got Dangerous Visions but have been somewhat underwhelmed by it so far.

    P.S. not crime fiction - true crime. (Though I have mentioned a couple of novels - works of historical fiction.)

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Jai. It's also the sort of thing I needed to read today (not sure that makes sense, for to understand that you'd have to be me :D). Thank you :)

  10. My neighbor is an up and coming Sci-fi writer and she recommended it. I couldn't get over the feeling that themes and motifs were repeating themselves endlessly. Also, that nothing really risky was being tried. Time travel, serial killers, spirituality ( in a biblical sense) are staples here. Being in Science myself, Verne, Asimov, Wells etc were always able to surprise me by the close to predictive capabilities of their work, their vision. These stories on the other hand were playing it very safe and it felt strange, it being Sci-fi and everything. It is entirely possible that I didn't "get it" the first time around. Should try revisiting it one of these days.
    "Mefisto in Onyx" is thematically similar to his story in "Dangerous Visions" but edgier, better-realized and better written. My two cents.
    True-crime. Again incidentally, once my exams are done I had decided to delve into "In Cold Blood" (watched Capote and read an essay about the research behind it) So when you put it up, will be just in time. :)

  11. Sonia: I wrote about Capote (the film) here and have self-cannibalised some of it for the true-crime piece.

    Interesting point you make about the Dangerous Visions stories playing it safe, since that is exactly what they weren't supposed to be doing - and in fact Ellison's grand vision for the anthology was so clearly spelled out that older-generation writers like Asimov (whom he approached) shied away from contributing, fearing that their ideas and writing style might be too stuffy for the book's readership. I've only read around 12 pieces in the anthology so far though, should get back to it sometime.

  12. Enjoyed your post. Give me popular science book any day.

  13. Radhika: thanks. And with the state of mind I'm in most of the day these days, I wouldn't have a problem understanding any mood-determined needs (if that makes any sense).

  14. Had an early day at the lab today, so didn't catch the comment.
    I'm sure the idea was that the Visions be Dangerous but most of them ended up convoluted or exeedingly tame.
    Exceptions include "The Jigsaw Man","If all men were brothers...","Land of the Great horses" and "The doll-house."All of these score because of their irreverance and good story-telling.Not exactly thought provoking, but more "hmmm...interesting" sort of material. And the last story is more accurately described as fantasy, not sci-fi.
    Asimov has nothing to fear here.
    I was involved in a discussion recently, where my neighbour (the same) told me that many members of the current crop of sci-fi writers are profoundly religious (Mormons, Catholics etc), and that they use the medium to explore their spirituality."Dangerous Visions" overflows with such "explorations". I wonder if it may have benefited from a healthy dose of Asimov's atheism to even things out. We will never know.

  15. If you're referring to what I think you are, yes, it does make perfect sense. I really do hope it gets easier with time.

  16. I am not too familiar with the work of either Dawkins or Gould.

    But their debate has fascinated me from whatever little I've read from other sources.

    Dawkins holds the orthodox view - that evolution is a gradual, never-ceasing process that happens at the level of a single gene.

    Gould, with his alternative punctuated equilibrium theory, suggests that evolution is not really something that occurs continually. The process is actually dormant for long periods of history with changes occuring abruptly triggered by environmental shocks.

    Scientifically speaking, Dawkins has more backers.

    But for an outsider, going by the nature of the two arguments, it's quite fascinating because these are two totally different ways of looking at the world. Theories which presumably tell us a lot about the temperaments of the two people concerned.

    Dawkins, the progressive, believes in gradual, continuous march of evolutionary progress.

    Gould's view is more akin to that of a conservative - sceptical of human progress. Reminding one of the discontinuous nature of progress in human history. As Edmund Burke once said - "The march of the human mind is slow"

  17. There was once an experiment to simulate an out-of-body experience by feeding images from a camera placed behind your back, directly to your eyes. I'll share the name of the book as soon as I can recall it.