This is one of my favourite books; I’ve read it twice and am about to begin again. I was looking through the introduction and it was so interesting to read about what started him thinking . . .
” . . . I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.
Then, much later – about four or five years ago, I suppose – I was on a long flight across the Pacific, staring idly out the window at a moonlit ocean, when it occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on. I had no idea, for example, why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t. Didn’t have the faintest idea. I didn’t know if the oceans were growing more salty with time or less, And whether the oceans salinity level was something I should be concerned about or not. (I am very pleased to tell you that until the late 1970s scientists didn’t know the answers to these questions either. They just didn’t talk about it very audibly.)
And ocean salinity, of course, represented only the merest sliver of my ignorance. I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was – didn’t know anything, really. I became gripped by a quiet, unwonted but insistent urge to know a little about these matters and to understand above all how people figured them out. That to me remained the greatest of all amazements – how scientists work things out. How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the centre? How can they know how and when the universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom? And how, come to that – or perhaps above all, on reflection – can scientists so often seem to know nearly everything but then still not be able to predict an earthquake or even tell us whether we should take an umbrella with us to the races next Wednesday?
So I decided that I would devote a portion of my life – three years as it now turns out – to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions. The idea was to see if it isn’t possible to understand and appreciate – marvel at, enjoy even – the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.
That was my idea and my hope, and that is what the book that follows is intended to do.”
The scientific mind fascinates me; what could it be like to have a mind like that? I watch every show about the universe that comes on the television, every show about the earth and its inhabitants. You know when the programme shows a blackboard covered with numbers and symbols and it makes perfect sense to the scientist? I smile ruefully. I understand very little but am always drawn to them anyway. I shall begin the book – again – straight away.