Intimate and accurate detail . . . , Stephen Jay Gould writes in his new collection, serves as a source of delight in itself, and also as a springboard to discourse about generalities of broadest scope. The pleasure of detail is the lifeblood of all good science writing. The anecdotes and asides that construct a narrative simultaneously form the building blocks of theory. Three recent books demonstrate this superbly well.
Stephen Jay Gould needs no introduction, so he won't get one. His latest collection of essays, Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (Harmony, $25, 0609601415), is the first of a final trio. He has often said that his long-running column in Natural History will end with the millennium. Over the years, as Gould has become evolution's apostle to the masses, he has become ever more playful and eccentric. His essays are longer now than at first, looser, more wide-ranging. He roams happily across his limitless topic, examining the illustrations in old books, analyzing Leonardo's notebooks, sketching early theories of the universe. He weaves together Columbus and fossil snail shells, explains why Pope Pius XII is not one of his favorite figures in history, and looks at Mars and the nature of nostalgia. The unrehearsed air of Gould's writing seems to emerge from his way of showing not just his final conclusions but the thought process itself the happy leaps and shouts of a hunter hot on a trail. Ultimately, his quarry is no less than our place in nature. An English science and technology writer named Tom Standage has written a lively first book exploring the impact of the technological advance that launched the notion of a global village. No, it isn't about the Internet, but the connection is so obvious it has even influenced the book's title: The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers. Standage's story is rich with anecdotes, bustling with a cast of idealists and eccentrics. He clears away the myths about the invention of telegraphy, follows the visionary battle for ocean-floor cables, and surrounds the whole story with the side effects it had on everyday life. Operating a telegraph was a profession harmless and sedentary enough to be deemed suitable for women and did its part to lure more and more young females into jobs. Along the way, Internet-style romances developed among men and women who had never met in the real world.
The rhetoric of the time rings familiar. All the inhabitants of the earth, a telegraph advocate declared in 1846, would be brought into one intellectual neighborhood. Standage writes with his eye on our own era: Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen. Throughout, Standage demonstrates a salutary skepticism. He warns against the dangers of chronocentricity the egotism that one's own generation is poised on the very cusp of history. He points out that time-traveling Victorians who could witness our own era would be impressed with heavier-than-air flight, which they thought impossible. But as for the Internet well, they had one of their own. Another new book explores the impact of a technological advance that revolutionized scientific thinking and later trickled down to alter our everyday perspective on the universe Richard Panek's Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens (Viking, $21.95, 0670876283).
The story begins astonishingly recently in the first decade of the 17th century, when a primitive spyglass fell into the hands of a Paduan professor of mathematics named Galileo Galilei. He didn't invent the instrument, but he refined it and trained it on the heavens and changed everything we thought we knew about the cosmos. Because Panek never ignores the human side of his story, we also find ourselves in the midst of the Church's tragic treatment of Galileo for his heresy. Other characters in this drama include England's William Herschel and Germany's Johannes Kepler. The latter declared, O telescope, instrument of much knowledge, more precious than any sceptre! As Panek follows the story of the telescope into our own era, we meet such important historical figures as Edwin Hubble and the telescope that bears his name, which is floating up there over our heads at this very moment, scanning the stars for more clues to our place in the universe.