When Peter Paul Rubens left his home town of Antwerp for Italy in 1600, travelling between Venice, Mantua, Genoa and Rome, he immersed himself in a thorough study of the art of antiquity and the great Renaissance masters. Using a technique popular with artists both before and since, Rubens made detailed and intricate studies of, for instance, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, and in the process transformed himself from an awkward apprentice painter into an artist whose work was sought by courts all over Europe.
For some years now scientists have been trained to do something very similar. We have been taught to conduct exhaustive studies of our chosen fields. But where, for artists like Rubens, the thoroughgoing approach led to profound change and an enhancement of ability, scientists have been trained to know ever more about ever less. We write about what often we alone understand – an article in a scientific journal may appear obscure to most lay people, but it is equally unintelligible to most scientists.
In conveying their research to a wider audience, precious few scientists have been able to escape the difficult language of research and to translate it into a comprehensible form – fewer still are able to write in such a manner about ideas outside their chosen field. Among those who have accomplished both is Steve Jones. His earlier books (in particular Y: The Descent of Man and Almost Like a Whale) brought biology to a wider audience, explaining theories of evolution and genetics in a vivid and often poetic style, and in which the reader was made to feel his equal.
The Single Helix accomplishes the second difficult task: the miscellany of short pieces that make up Jones’s latest offering are variations on the theme of modern science, from astrophysics to anthropology and genetics to geochemistry. Almost all of these short essays explore an area in which Jones is not an expert (although his favourite snail, the single helix of the title, does make the odd appearance), bringing to life a vast diversity of subjects united under the banner of scientific truth.
Many of the essays are updated versions of his ‘View from the Lab’ column, which appeared on the science page of the Daily Telegraph for more than a decade. But even so they have lost none of the skill, richness and clarity that make Jones’s writings such a pleasure to read. And though much of the carping and grumbles (often about scientific funding) has been edited out, these essays still showcase Jones’s cutting wit and humour, so rare in the accomplished scientist.
Witness, for instance, the wonderfully unapologetic contempt shown towards creationists in the opening piece, ‘On Darwin Airlines’, or his unflattering appraisal of current electoral systems in ‘Thumbs Down for Politicians’. Along the way some fairly familiar (Marx and Engels for the politically motivated reader of this magazine, Blair for the not so motivated) and unfamiliar (keep a lookout for my favourite, Christian Hulsmeyer and his ‘Telemobiloskop’) characters make an appearance.
Jones’s aim throughout is to concentrate on the twists and turns of science, but even so he never misses the opportunity for social and political commentary when these arise. From the cats that urinate on his plants to chaos in the heavens, from the mathematics of elections to the corporatisation of science, The Single Helix is a geneticist’s look at sciences other than his own. And as a result, Jones makes the complicated unashamedly simple – this is popular science at its very best.
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