Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Salon: SEEING FURTHER edited by Bill Bryson

Today, and for the last couple of days, I've been reading SEEING FURTHER. This large, and generally fascinating book has been edited by Bill Bryson, with (I've just realised) Jon Turney as contributing editor.

The subtitle is 'The Story of Science and the Royal Society' and I am learning a lot. The chapters, each by a different eminent science writer or novelist, are pleasingly short and engaging, and there is a generous smattering of illustrations. Even topics such as the history of bridges (from Telford onwards) by Henry Petroski is made interesting (which I wouldn't have thought possible), and I've just finished a fascinating overview of the history of X-ray crystallography and how it is used to elucidate the structure of large molecules by Georgina Ferry.

Another of my favourite chapters so far (and there have been many) has been the first by James Gleick. This was about some of the early members and there was one called Colonel James Long who had an amusing taste for the bizarre. After I had finished that chapter I found the Colonel on Wikipedia and discovered that as a magistrate he had been responsible for the hanging of several women as witches. During the Civil War he was a Royalist and was captured by the Parliamentarians, but when Oliver Cromwell went hawking with him he 'fell in love' with his company so much that he was allowed to wear his sword. In SEEING FURTHER Long is described as a devotee of 'astrology, witchcraft and natural magic' and in contrast to Cromwell, his fellow member of the Royal Society, John Aubrey, found him 'an admirable extempore orator for a harangue' (or as Gleick puts it 'never stopped gabbling'). Gleick also says that he presented so many observations to the society that the 'minute-taker sometimes sounds weary.' Excellent stuff.

I shall write a full review for Bookmunch.


Blogger Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Love Bill Bryson and, though some find him a bit of a curmudgeon, I find him to be a very good writer. Short History was one of the best introductions to science I've ever read.

Sun Feb 21, 06:27:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I think BB is a good writer too, Readerbuzz - although he provides just the introduction in this book.

In a way I think that's better because each of these writers knows exactly what they're talking about (more than BB could on his own, maybe) - and they generally write really well too. I also like the variety of styles. It's a very good read.

Sun Feb 21, 06:38:00 pm  
Anonymous Heather said...

I'm also very fond of Henry Petroski's essays that have long appeared in American Scientist. Worth a perusal. I'll keep an eye out for this collection, thanks!

Sun Feb 21, 07:19:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I didn't know, Heather! I subscribe to American Scientist but don't generally notice the authors, so thanks for the tip.

Sun Feb 21, 07:24:00 pm  
Blogger Paul Halpern said...

There is something wonderfully exciting about a collection of scholarly essays by great authors, and this sounds like an excellent example. Interesting review!

Mon Feb 22, 12:47:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Paul - it certainly is so far...

Mon Feb 22, 06:59:00 am  
Anonymous marly youmans said...

If you google "Colonell James Long of Draycot," a good bit of what Aubrey has to say pops up. I couldn't resist going to look!

Mon Feb 22, 05:05:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, heh - quite a character, isn't he, Marly?

Mon Feb 22, 05:23:00 pm  
Blogger Zee said...

This sounds like a great book. I love Bill Bryson and anything he is involved in should be good, then add the fact that Melvyn Bragg has a quote on the cover, I'm there!

Tue Feb 23, 01:19:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Zee! It is a really good book. I learnt a lot.

Tue Feb 23, 10:21:00 pm  

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