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If this series has finally found a distinctive voice, I have learned this mode of speech in the most gradual, accumulating, and largely unconscious manner--against my deepest personal beliefs in punctuational change and the uniquely directive power (despite an entirely accidental origin) of human reason in evolution. I suppose I had read a bit of Montaigne in English 101, and I surely could spell the word, but I had no inkling about the definitions and traditions of the essay as a literary genre when Alan Ternes called me cold on that fine autumn day.
I began the series with quite conventional notions about writing science for general consumption. I believed, as almost all scientists do (by passively imbibing a professional ethos, not by active thought or decision), that nature speaks directly to unprejudiced observers, and that accessible writing for nonscientists therefore required clarity, suppression of professional jargon, and an ability to convey the excitement of fascinating facts and interesting theories. If I supposed that I might bring something distinctive to previous efforts in this vein, I managed to formulate only two vague personal precepts: first, I would try to portray all subjects at the same conceptual depth that I would utilize in professional articles (that is, no dumbing down of ideas to accompany necessary clarification of language); second, I would use my humanistic and historical interests as a "user friendly" bridge to bring readers into the accessible world of science.
Over the years, however, this mere device (the humanistic "bridge") became an explicit centrality, a feature that I permitted myself to accept (and regard as a source of comfort and pride rather than an idiosyncrasy to downplay or even to hide) only when I finally realized that I had been writing essays, not mere columns, all along--and that nearly five hundred years of tradition had established and validated (indeed, had explicitly defined) the essay as a genre dedicated to personal musing and experience, used as a gracious entrée, or at least an intriguing hook, for discussion of general and universal issues. (Scientists are subtly trained to define the personal as a maximally dangerous snare of subjectivity and therefore to eschew the first person singular in favor of the passive voice in all technical writing. Some scientific editors will automatically blue-pencil the dreaded I at every raising of its ugly head. Therefore, "popular science writing" and "the literary essay" rank as an ultimately disparate, if not hostile, pairing of immiscible oil and water in our usual view--a convention that I now dream about fracturing as a preeminent goal for my literary and scientific life.)
I have tried, as these essays developed over the years, to expand my humanistic "take" upon science from a simple practical device (my original intention, insofar as I had any initial plan at all) into a genuine emulsifier that might fuse the literary essay and the popular scientific article into something distinctive, something that might transcend our parochial disciplinary divisions for the benefit of both domains (science, because honorable personal expression by competent writers can't ever hurt; and composition, because the thrill of nature's factuality should not be excluded from the realm of our literary efforts). At the very least, such an undertaking can augment the dimensionality of popular scientific articles--for we lose nothing of science's factual beauty and meaning, while we add the complexity of how we come to know (or fail to learn) to conventional accounts of what we think we know.
As this series developed, I experimented with many styles for adding this humanistic component about how we learned (or erred) to standard tales about what, in our best judgment, exists "out there" in the natural world--often only to demonstrate the indivisibility of these two accounts, and the necessary embeddedness of "objective" knowledge within worldviews shaped by social norms and psychological hopes. But so often, as both Dorothy and T. S. Eliot recognized in their different ways, traditional paths may work best and lead home (because they have truly withstood the test of time and have therefore been honed to our deep needs and best modes of learning, not because we fall under their sway for reasons of laziness or suppression).
Despite conscious efforts at avoidance, I find myself constantly drawn to biography--for absolutely nothing can match the richness and fascination of a person's life, in its wondrous mixture of pure gossip, miniaturized and personalized social history, psychological dynamics, and the development of central ideas that motivate careers and eventually move mountains. And try as I may to ground biography in various central themes, nothing can really substitute for the sweep and storytelling power of chronology. (I regard the Picasso Museum in Paris and the Turner Wing of the Tate Gallery in London as my two favorite art museums because each displays the work of a great creator in the strict chronological order of his life. I can then devise whatever alternative arrangement strikes my own fancy and sense of utility--but the arrow of time cannot be replaced or set aside; even our claims for invariance must seek constant features of style or subject through time's passage.)
So I have struggled, harder and more explicitly than for anything else in my life as a writer, to develop a distinctive and personal form of essay to treat great scientific issues in the context of biography--and to do so not by the factual chronology of a life's sorrows and accomplishments (a noble task requiring the amplitude of a full book), but rather by the intellectual synergy between a person and the controlling idea of his life. In this manner, when the conceit works, I can capture the essence of a scientist's greatest labor, including the major impediments and insights met and gathered along the way, while also laying bare (in the spare epitome demanded by strictures of the essay as a literary form of limited length) the heart of a key intellectual concept in the most interesting microcosm of a person's formulation and defense.
From the Hardcover edition.
|I||Episodes in the Birth of Paleontology: The Nature of Fossils and the History of the Earth|
|1.||The Lying Stones of Marrakech||9|
|2.||The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature||27|
|3.||How the Vulva Stone Became a Brachiopod||53|
|II||Present at the Creation: How France's Three Finest Scientists Established Natural History in an Age of Revolution|
|4.||Inventing Natural History in Style||75|
|5.||The Proof of Lavosier's Plates||91|
|6.||A Tree Grows in Paris: Lamarck's Division of Worms and Revision of Nature||115|
|III||Darwin's Century--and Ours: Lessons from Britain's Four Greatest Victorian Naturalists|
|7.||Lyell's Pillars of Wisdom||147|
|8.||A Sly Dullard Named Darwin: Recognizing the Multiple Facets of Genius||169|
|9.||An Awful Terrible Dinosaurian Irony||183|
|10.||Second-Guessing the Future||201|
|IV||Six Little Pieces on the Meaning and Location of Excellence|
|Substrate and Accomplishment|
|11.||Drink Deep, or Taste Not the Pierian Spring||221|
|13.||More Power to Him||231|
|De Mortuis When Truly Bonum|
|14.||Bright Star Among Billions||237|
|15.||The Glory of His Time and Ours||241|
|16.||This Was a Man||245|
|V||Science in Society|
|17.||A Tale of Two Work Sites||251|
|18.||The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W||269|
|19.||Dolly's Fashion and Louis's Passion||287|
|20.||Above All, Do No Harm||299|
|VI||Evolution at all Scales|
|21.||Of Embryos and Ancestors||317|
|22.||The Paradox of the Visibly Irrelevant||333|
|23.||Room of One's Own||347|