Friday, September 15, 2006

Review of Watson's The Double Helix

By now everyone really knows the story of the discovery of DNA, and this book is not really all that interesting. It is Watson's retelling of the story of how he and Crick uncovered the molecular structure of the double helix, and what it was like to realize that A's G's C's and T's were paired the way they are.

There is a bit of excitement conveyed in the thrill of the discovery, but I can't help but not be that excited. When one reads how sociologists of science see this this as one of the most important books of their discipline, one cannot but loose respect for those sociologists of science.

This book is clearly written for science-phobes, and makes no attempt whatsoever to convey actual scientific information. Nor do you get a feel for the scientific methodology.

Good scientists often write popular books to explain their discoveries to the public. This is not one of them. This explains the lab gossip that was going on while the real sicence was being done.

Neither is the book sexy, as it is often hyped. Sure, if you find it odd or risque that a science student in his mid-20's thinks about girls a lot, then this will be an odd and risque book. But even by the standards of its time, it was pretty demure. Feynman really knew how to embellish an autobiography. Watson. . . not so much.

Unless you are really bord, you can skip this book, and your life will be no less empty.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review of A. O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being

Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being is a classic work, actually the one that founded the discipline we now call the "history of ideas". It is kind of like the history of philosophy, but it is more about tracing an idea through history than critically evaluating an argument, even via its historical chain.

There are two ideas that Lovejoy finds in about 2000 years of history. The first is the Principle of Plentitude. That principle is one that states that everything that is not a patent irrational contradiction actually exists - was created in the world. The second idea is the Principle of Continuity - the thesis that nature makes no leaps. That is for every set of things where there can be an intermediate thing between two objects, the intermediate thing exists too. Between the two of these we can account for, for example, why there are so many species, and why there are so many similarities among and between species.

This idea manifests itself over and over and over in history from its origins in Plato and Aristotle to the romantics in the 18th century.

Thogh the idea is important and in and of itself interesting, the book is often tedious. It is not a quick or easy or fascinating read. If you are really interested in the history of ideas, and have some real experience with primary texts in philosophy, you should get to know this. I am sure there is more up-to-date literature on this, and I am sure that Lovejoy has been criticized a lot since this came out in 1936, but the book remains a valuable part (or starting point) for the discussion of many of the ideas that he brings down.