July 2010

Melissa A. Barton


Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Mysteries by Colette Brooks

Pause for a moment and consider the stereotypes of scientists in Western, particularly American, society. Do you think of odd individuals with esoteric interests -- even obsessions -- incomprehensible to ordinary people? Perhaps they are toiling away in isolation in their labs, eventually to unveil extraordinary discoveries. They’re probably men, and probably white. Do you know anything about the science being done today in India or China? As for science itself, it’s difficult and boring. Most of it is too complicated for the ordinary person to understand. And scientists change their minds all the time! Math? It's even worse. 

In Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Mysteries, a slim book with a casual style, Colette Brooks seeks to “bridge the gap between experts and everybody else.” Whether she succeeds in doing so is another question. 

The introduction is not promising. In the first four pages, it equates scientists with “mystics, shamans, alchemists, magicians, [and] priests” and asserts that there are two separate cultures in the modern world, one of numbers and data (the scientists), and one of words and pictures (everybody else). Never mind that unlike that list of occupations, scientists deal in data and rational analysis rather than faith. Likewise, I am not convinced that there are two wholly separate cultures; I know far too many scientists who paint and knit and read (and write) novels, and far too many non-scientists who enjoy learning about science. Children who grow up to be scientists are not immune to the lure of crayons. 

This sets up a pattern for the book: Brooks makes sweeping assertions, and then cherry-picks examples that support them. Scientists are lonely men, she writes, and then selects some scientists known for working largely independently. This ignores the vast collaborative history of science -- while pre-twentieth-century scientists were less likely to co-publish than modern scientists, their work was not conducted in a vacuum. They had societies, held public meetings and debates, and produced vast reams of correspondence with each other. As scientific disciplines become more specialized, collaboration becomes ever more essential (in some disciplines, extremely so: for example, the initial sequencing of the human genome). 

It’s not that Brooks writes the science inaccurately -- with the exception of her description of the relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, which is so abbreviated as to border on misleading. Wallace’s and Darwin’s initial papers were published at a joint presentation -- without Wallace’s consent -- and Wallace’s less enthusiastic reception by the scientific community had less to do with his work coming out second and more to do with his fascination with Spiritualism. 

Who remembers Alfred Russel Wallace? Only every biologist, every paleontologist, and everyone who paid attention in a biology class that discussed evolution. 

What Brooks leaves out is often more interesting than what she includes. She presents a Western-centric, white male picture of science -- and perpetuates that view of the ivory-towered priest-scientist working on projects baffling to the “layperson” -- which is more of a problem in U.S. society than this so-called “cultural divide” between numbers and pictures. 

There is exactly one mention of science outside the U.S. and Europe, a brief mention that Indian and China might beat the U.S. in nanotechnology. To my knowledge, all of the scientists discussed were white, and only a few women are mentioned. Of the women, the inventors of Stove Top brand boxed stuffing and slippers (is this science or product development?) are mentioned in the same section with Ada Lovelace, perhaps the first “computer” programmer. The majority of women mentioned in the book are baffled wives and sisters or UFO-spotters (there’s a whole section on the search for extraterrestrial life and the UFO craze). 

And this homogeneity is not just problematic from the standpoint of a woman or a person of color who might think science isn’t for them; it’s boring. Nearly all of the examples Brooks chooses are of scientists and studies which are likely to be covered in high school classes. She rarely digs deeper for the lesser-known but fascinating stories of science, which authors like Stephen Jay Gould have been so good at finding.  

Brooks does nothing to dispel the stereotypes of scientists as aloof, solitary individuals who deign to speak the language of non-scientists only under duress, mentions not a single scientist known for their popular science writing, like Oliver Sacks and Rachel Carson, much less any of the scientists writing science-themed novels, like geology mystery writer Sarah Andrews or biologist E.O. Wilson. While the science of Lost in Wonder is mostly accurate, the picture Brooks presents of scientists and of the field of science is misleading. 

Who is Brooks writing for? Probably not scientists, and judging by the frequent assumption that the reader finds math intimidating and science uninteresting, probably not fans of popular science writing. I’m not sure that the math-fearing reader who slept through high school biology is likely to pick up this book, and I’m not sure it will change that reader’s mind about science. 

There are many wonderful books about science by both scientists and science writers. Better choices for the reader curious about science include Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Lying Stones of Marrakech, or any of the Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies. 

Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Mysteries by Colette Brooks
ISBN: 1582435723
256 Pages