I have collected anthologies for many years
The Oxford book of modern science writing
Richard Dawkins (ed.)
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2008 | 419pp | ?20.00 (HB) ISBN 9780199216802
Reviewed by Mary Strickland
I have collected anthologies for many years - I have about 500 of them in my personal library - and would therefore claim to be a connoisseur of the genre. My opinion is that there are three things that make a good anthology. Firstly, the compiler needs to select good material for inclusion. Secondly, the selected material needs to be arranged in such a way as to give a good overall structure to the collection. Lastly, the compiler must provide good interconnecting comment, showing why each piece has been selected and providing a sense of flow through the work.
On all these counts The Oxford book of modern science writing, edited by Richard Dawkins, comes up trumps. Dawkins has selected 83 passages from the writings of great scientist communicators of our generation, including Peter Medawar, Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, J B S Haldane, Rachel Carson, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould. He arranges them into four interesting sections: What scientists study; Who scientists are; What scientist think; and What scientists delight in. Dawkins also provides an excellent insightful commentary through the work which connects everything together and stops the book from being just a set of random passages.
This book will appeal to a wide range of readers from those with a passing interest in science to those who may be expert in one of the areas covered. It is to Dawkins’ great credit that he manages to cover such a breadth of subject material, and not just in areas in which he is has expertise; there is biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics, and the interfaces between them. Dawkins intentionally does not include any of his own writings, though a different compiler would certainly have included one.
This collection is one of ’science writing’ by scientists themselves, and the passages have been chosen not only for the top science they describe, but also for their ability to communicate and inspire. Dawkins, as a professor of the public understanding of science, is ideally suited to edit such a compilation and it is to be hoped that many will not only read this excellent volume, but will then go on to read in their entirety some of the individual works themselves. That is the ultimate success of any anthology.