This charming book manages to make an impassioned and rational plea for the value of scientific literacy, without ever making use of scientific jargon or mathematical equations. As its title makes clear, this is all about praise (and curiosity, understanding and progress).
Over the course of four short chapters, Sander Bais illustrates in entertaining and often poetic ways not only how all of the sciences are connected to each other, but how they comprise a vital (if not the most vital) endeavor humans has ever undertaken. There’s also a sense of someone determined to avoid melancholy and maintain hope, especially when Bais laments the rise and risk of scientific illiteracy.
“The increasing impact of science is contrasted with the fading image of the sciences in the public domain,” he writes. “[This] allows people to slide into a jumble of ignorance, non-awareness and sometimes tragic isolation.”
When Bais notes that “the first ingredient of science is wonder,” he brings to mind a similar book by Carl Sagan, whose Demon-Haunted World also sought to explain (passionately) why science is important and vital to humanity, as well as the risk of “enveloping darkness” posed by scientific illiteracy and the popularization of “pseudo-science”.
“Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudo-science”, writes Carl Sagan. “Spurious accounts that snare the gullible are readily available. Skeptical treatments are much harder to find. Skepticism does not sell well.”
Bais covers parallel territory in In Praise of Science, when he states his aim of exploring “the poignant discrepancy in our cultural life between science and established culture.”
“Indeed one could go so far as to claim that science come close to defining what it means to be a human being”, he writes. “Once we realize how profound this impact is, we can be puzzled and even worried about the ever-increasing marginalization of the natural sciences in the public arena, in other words the problem of scientific illiteracy.”
A professor of theoretical physics at the University of Amsterdam, Bais’ previous books (including one about key mathematical equations, and another on the theory of relativity) also demonstrated his talents for plain-language explanations of heady scientific topics. His style also brings to mind James Burke, author of Connections, Circles and many other popular science books. Both authors present their arguments disarmingly, appearing to ramble and make unusual connections, jumping from thought to related thought, only to have the overall picture reveal itself at the end of a long string of associations.
Like Sagan, Burke also starred in a popular series about science, based on his book Connections. Among Burke’s techniques, a personal favourite is his habit of standing in the location of a notable event, talking about how it relates to something that happened on the other side of the planet, then walking off camera and continuing his sentence by walking on camera in that location. Seen from a child’s point of view, this had the same sense of playful wonder and all-around interconnectedness as Sagan’s Cosmos.
That all-is-one idea forms a key part of Bais’ argument in Praise, especially in the book’s second part (encompassing the middle chapters). There, he introduces two visual metaphors for the nature of science and its relationship to the universe: a “double-helix of science and technology”, and then an “Ouroboros of nature,” which forms the longest section of the book.
Through these metaphors, he strives for a “kaleidoscopic perspective, which facilitates a multi-layered survey of different aspects of… turning points in the sciences, while underscoring their mutual connectedness.”
An ancient image of a snake eating its own tail, the Ouroboros figures prominently in Bais’ book, and he dedicates a significant amount of space and artwork to it. He uses the Ouroboros as a “template to highlight many different aspects of the natural sciences”, and he arranges various topics onto the circular image. For example, he moves clockwise around the circle, starting with microscopic-level sciences, gradually increasing in size and complexity until reaching massive cosmic-level sciences. At the top of the circle is the big bang, and the bottom are humans.
“The Ouroboros is an old Greek image that has been used by the Gnostics and also by alchemists to symbolize the unity of nature,” he writes. “The basic message is: To know and fully understand one thing is to know everything. The macrocosm has its mirror image in the microcosm.”
This brings to mind a Zen saying about how knowing one thing well is akin to knowing many things well, or as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “If you touch one thing with deep awareness, you touch everything.” It also resonates with the well-known line by William Blake (which Bais refers to) about seeing “the world in a grain of sand.”
The circle provides a rich metaphor for Bais, and he uses it to describe such topics as the four fundamental forces in nature, cosmic evolution, orders of magnitude, and structures in nature (from the quark to the entire universe). His overall aim seems to be to emphasize the “oneness” of nature and science. Everything is connected. Or possibly, he is the walrus: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
Surprisingly compact for a book that could serve as a valuable academic textbook (to introduce the value or at least an appreciation of science to students who might feel otherwise), In Praise of Science covers its vast territory in less than 200 pages, a large proportion of which are full-colour illustrations. Bonus: there are wee naked people on the cover.
The first part of In Praise of Science explores “how wonder and curiosity may liberate us from the iron embracement of prejudice, and this naturally leads to a demystification of our world view.” These take the form of case histories that “illustrate a number of interesting mechanisms that may obstruct a straightforward pursuit of the truth.”
This format also recalls Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, which also relied on case histories. “It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course,” writes Sagan. “Not explaining science seem to me perverse.”
Among others, the stories in In Praise of Science include the origin of Santa Claus, the history of quantum theory, the invention of the lightning rod, and religious attacks that distorted the theory of evolution and facts surrounding HIV and AIDS.
The polemical nature of Bais’ arguments might spark debate for some readers, but he never comes across as ranting. He employs many (at times lengthy) quotes from a variety of sources, and near the end of the book there’s a tendency to let the quotes make the case for him. But for the vast majority of the book, Bais seems like the quirky professor everyone loves and/or wishes they had, one who inspires lifelong interests.
In the last part of his book, Bais takes the concept of “turning points” in science, and examines “how science is perceived in the public domain and how knowledge percolates down towards applications,” while at the same time being “a personal reflection” on his life as a scientist. He explains that a turning point represents an achievement that can lead to a “compact and powerful statement about how the universe works… I am not talking about something like the invention of the wheel, but rather about a revelation like the general laws of motion.”
“Turning points in science are precise statements about how nature functions,” he writes. “According to me, such turning points should be recognized as key events in the evolution of human thought. They are not just some freaky science thing that only nerds can get excited about.”