Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
An attempt to understand a concept such as science releases passion and inspiration and too often frustration, as the subject’s vastness and its predisposition to cognitive challenge leave its practitioners overwhelmed. Iraqi-British theoretical physicist and chair of public engagement in science at the University of Surrey, Jim Al-Khalili, spends half his time as a populariser and science communicator and has written many books aimed at the lay reader. The Joy of Science is his latest contribution. Since he presents numerous TV documentaries and radio programs for the BBC, he is accustomed to communicating science topics to non-scientists.
The book, The Joy of Science, attracted me as the writer claims to provide a short, all-purpose guide to thinking and living a little more scientifically, thereby offering some control over the complex and conflicting information that the world throws at us. As an academic publication, only about one-third of the pages in it were devoted to these eight guides, while the rest of the text was taken up with what one would expect in such a book. This was disappointing. Also off-putting for me was having to confront pages of text with very few paragraph breaks. No doubt the small dimensions of the book may have contributed to this problem.
The Preface attempts to convince us that science helps to see the world more deeply, enriches us, enlightens us. The closer we look, the more we can see, and the more we can wonder (XV). In the Introduction, which is nearly thirty pages, the author acknowledges that, as of 2021 “the world view of science: its role and value to society, how scientific research is carried out and its claims tested, and indeed how scientists conduct themselves and communicate their discoveries and results” (1), is of extreme importance and is subject to scrutiny like never before. A relationship of openness and collaboration between scientists and non-scientists (3) has never been more important. The reader is reminded that science, unlike politics or religion, is not an ideology or belief system but a process and that decision-making is never value-free (27). This difference is stressed throughout the book.
The author concludes his Introduction by stressing that “the scientific method is a combination of curiosity about the world, a willingness to question, to observe, to experiment, and to reason, and of course to modify our views and learn from experience” (28). While reading this section I began to feel an urge for simplicity, that I wanted to say ‘Keep it simple…don’t blind me with details’ as, though arguments were couched in layman’s terms, the many points did seem to be overly be-laboured.
It was with great surprise then that, having read through the first guide, Something is either true or it isn’t, and moved on to the second, It’s more complicated than that, I found my exact thoughts in print. So, with the author’s prompting, ‘If you are prepared to dig a little deeper, you will be rewarded’ (64), I learned that mysteries are to be embraced, but also to be solved because striving to understand the world around us is a defining feature of our species and science has given us the means to achieve this understanding (71). Being told that curiosity about the nature of reality leads to enlightenment, I read on in the hope of finding it.
The author stresses that in society today we have so much information available to us that our attention span is reduced so we need to determine what is ‘deserving of our attention and time and what is not’ (95). He tells us that with time and effort we can understand more than we can imagine.
The following chapters, titled Don’t value opinions over evidence, Recognise your own biases before judging the views of others, Don’t be afraid to change your mind and to Stand up for reality, are fully discussed with the author using many current examples to support his arguments. Most of these have been felt by the whole community over the past few years. The pandemic, the role of technology especially online platforms, fake news and conspiracy theories all find a place. The difference between scientific theories and conspiracy theories is fully explained.
By following the author’s advice, the reader is told we will be better able to know who or what can be trusted (98). Ignorance and uncertainty lead to frustration which provides fertile ground for the growth and spread of misinformation and fake narratives (153). The author argues that as members of society we must all learn to apply the methods of science to develop mechanisms for coping with complexity, to assess uncertainty and keep an open mind (152). Such homilies as these appear extensively throughout and, while no one would argue counter to them, they do provide the tone of a lecture that might not have been the author’s intention. These lapses are of little moment in the grand scheme of the book. There is much that is philosophical in this work.
Overall, this book argues that science is more than hard facts and figures, that it is ‘a way to see the world…beyond our limited senses, beyond our prejudices and biases, beyond our fears and insecurities, beyond our ignorance and weakness’ (161). I believe it does this. If we try to follow the advice stated so clearly in the topics of each chapter, then we may also discover The Joy of Science.
by Jim Al-Khalili
Princeton University Press
US$ 16.99/£12.95; 228pp