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review 2017-12-13 22:55
The Science of Discworld
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

"Ook?"

I usually try to start my reviews with a pertinent quote from the relevant book, but I was somewhat eager to return my copy to the library and I forgot to copy out a quotation for my review. However, it is somewhat appropriate to start the summary of my thoughts about The Science of Discworld with a quote from one of my favourite characters from the book - The Librarian.

 

Never said one word so much.

 

The Science of Discworld is an attempt to fuse the storyverse created by Terry Pratchett with non-fiction science. Through alternating chapters, we get to see how the Wizards of Discworld, with some help from Hex, create a roundworld very akin to Earth. And, yes, I smirked at the idea that book that spends a lot of time refuting creationism, is based on a story that features ... creationism.

 

(I should add that I am not a fan of or even giving credence to the theory/ies of creationism, but, equally, I am not a fan of arguments that are full of contradictions.)  

 

This is not the only aspect in which the book failed for me.

 

As much as I loved the Wizards - especially the Librarian - and Pratchett's Discworld, the science parts in this book just really did not work for me.

 

The book started out with a random discussion of quantum physics. I am not a scientist. My working knowledge of physics is basic. The opening chapters took a lot of effort because I actually found myself researching different things that the authors referred to on the internet. I don't mind do the research on topics I want to learn about if I feel that it will help me understand the rest of the book.

 

But not so here, the science parts seemed to jump from one topic to another without referring back to the previous ones. It was so confusing. And the difficulty level of the science parts differed throughout the book, too. It made me wonder what kind of a readership the authors were aiming for. Were they talking to people with pre-existing knowledge of quantum physics but not biology? Or maybe the authors just found it difficult to explain the topics they are experts in but didn't bother to go into the same depths about topics they may not be as familiar with?

 

I have no idea.

 

What is clear to me is that the authors of the science parts are not great at communicating. Apart from talking down to readers, or constantly contradicting themselves - for example, when they criticise the act of simplifying a concept to explain it to someone, which the authors decry as "lies to children", only to then use the same simplification to explain concepts to readers -, the authors of the science parts actually managed to ... and this is the dealbreaker ... they managed to make science boring.

 

And with that they made the book fail. Well, they managed to make half the book fail. The Wizard parts were delightful.

 

Previous status updates:

 

Update 1

Update 2

Update 3

Update 4

Update 5

Update 6

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review 2017-12-13 03:26
The Science of Discworld (Revised Edition)
The Science Of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

This book.  I'm shaking my head over this book.

 

It boils down to three things:

 

The Discworld portion of the book, involving the Unseen University, is excellent; 4 stars.  Pratchett's writing is always good, even when it's average for him, and the UU storyline doesn't disappoint.  I loved the verbal interplay between the Archchancellor and the Dean.  The librarian and Rincewind also kept me going when I was at risk of wandering away during the science-y chapters.

 

The Science part of the book was also, if distilled down to its essence, good.  Solid.  Accurate, if dated (even the revised edition is over 10 years old now).  The explanation of some difficult concepts sometimes even reaches inspired in its clarity.

 

The rest of the science writing is... well.  Hmph.  The authors of the science sections decided to weave commentary throughout their chapters; I don't know if they were going for a whole Statler and Waldorf vibe, or really are the supremely condescending and arrogant gits they sound like, but either way - I didn't like them.  At all.  Which really in the grand scheme of things matters not a wit, except that I'll avoid anything else either of these two puts their name on, and that amounts to a raindrop in an ocean.

 

They started off with this whole ridiculous premise they call lies-to-children, which, if you've read any of my status updates so far, you'll be fed up to your eyeballs hearing about, so suffice it to say they don't understand the meaning of the word lie and leave it at that.  Even though they don't, and proceed to condescend to the reader throughout the book, telling them they've been believing these lies-to-children all along; everything the reader thinks they know is wrong and then proceeds to explain the concepts using simplified terms in easy to understand ways.  You know, lies-to-children.

 

The thing is, most of the time I did understand the concept just fine before they started in, and wasn't at all wrong about what I, in fact, knew thankyouverymuch.  And maybe I'm not the target audience for this book; that's fair.  But the hypocrisy of condescending to the reader out of one side of their mouths by telling them what they believe to know is wrong, while simultaneously condescending to them out of the other side of their mouths by re-explaining the concept in terms just as simplified is simply too rich. 

 

I was worried about giving concrete examples of this hypocrisy because I'm crap at taking notes (as in: I don't.) while I read and figured I'd never find those examples again.  But it just now occurred to me to check the index, and, sure enough, there's an index entry for lies-to-children.  Excellent!

 

In chapter 26, Stewart and Cohan take exception to the term genetic code, conflating the term with genetic blueprint.  To be fair, most people do and they're right, DNA is not a genetic blueprint.  But it is genetic coding - something they later refer to and claim as being the only part of the DNA we do, at this time, understand.  So... thanks for clearing that up.

 

In chapter 36 - on dinosaurs - they mention a bunch of fiction including the cartoon Fantasia, quote a psychologist named Helen Haste who claims that we all think of dinosaurs as icons of sex and power (you might, I sure as hell don't; they're just really cool, freaky-looking reptiles), and infer that these are the basis of our knowledge concerning dinosaurs.  Really?  Is this true?  All I remember from Fantasia is Mickey doing his Sorcerer's Apprentice bit, and maybe something about hippos in tutus?  And I've never read Wells or The Lost World, so I'm pretty sure the bulk of my knowledge about dinosaurs came from Discover Magazine as a kid and later, NewScientist.  

 

There are other examples, I'm sure, and don't even get me started on the whole idea that they know what happens when life on earth ends.  They are wrong by sheer dint that nobody knows what happens.  You can feel certain within yourself that you know what will happen to you, but that is not empirical certainty and to believe otherwise is a...lie-to-children!

 

So - did not like the commentary.  2 stars for that.  3 star average.  Won't be reading anymore of their stuff, although I'm with Pratchett until the wheels fall off.

 

 

Book themes for Newtonmas:  Any science book.  

 

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text 2017-12-11 20:49
Reading progress update: I've read 20%.
Hogfather: (Discworld Novel 20) - Terry Pratchett

"This is Hogswatch! It's supposed to be jolly, with mistletoe and holly, and-and other things ending in olly! It's a time when people want to feel good about things and eat until they explode! It's a time when they want to see all their relatives-" She stopped that sentence.

 

I laughed a lot at this! It describes it in a nutshell.

Thanks for getting me to start this again Broken Tune.

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text 2017-12-11 19:32
Reading progress update: I've read 295 out of 414 pages.
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

Who knew it was possible to make a chapter on dinosaurs boring?

I mean, DINOSAURS!

 

Did they just include this chapter to geek out on how many different dinosaur names they know? Or was it to show off that they know Disney got it wrong?

 

Ugh...

 

Is it wrong to wish the book would end soon?

 

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text 2017-12-11 12:55
Reading progress update: I've read 10%.
Hogfather: (Discworld Novel 20) - Terry Pratchett

I've really been enjoying this, but I've been getting a little confused, so I'm going to go back to the beginning of the series and read The Colour of Magic. I don't want my appreciation of the author to be muddied by frustration! Hopefully I can join in another buddy read in the future. Have a brilliant time all of you participating. I hope you enjoy my updates about The Colour of Magic which will be hitting your screens ASAP.

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