Tomes on science and critical thinking are not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. But anyone who is interested in separating fact from fiction, or simply interested in knowing more about the universe around us is going to notice that there are certain subjects that keep cropping up: the Big Bang, evolution, cosmology, geology, relativity, Quantum Theory, gravity. For many of us though, these weighty subjects can be daunting and even overwhelming. However, help can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Most people have heard of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, even if they do not enjoy comical fantasy themselves. Stories set in a highly fantastical world of magic, wizards and simian Librarians would not appear to be the place to go if you would like to learn the basics about planets, placental mammals and the Pleistocene. But Pratchett has teamed up with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen and produced a trilogy called The Science of Discworld that does exactly that.
This story is Discworld with a bit of a difference. The wizards at the Unseen University are mucking about with world-building, aided by Hex the ant-based computer. Only this world turns out to be nothing at all like they’ve seen, based on physics rather than narrativium. Chapters featuring well-loved characters from the Discworld are interlaced with chapters explaining the science behind the story, and thus the enticing journey into cosmology, particle physics and evolution is begun.
One of the great strengths of the trilogy is however light-hearted the fiction part of the book may be, the authors take their readers seriously and treat them as an intelligent audience. The science is explained clearly and carefully without dumbing it down and common misunderstandings of science are highlighted and explored. This is an invaluable primer that spans the range of natural science and explains some of the universe’s greatest mysteries and humanity’s greatest quest to make sense of it all with insight, learning and humour.
These are probably the most accessible science books I’ve ever read, and will leave you scientifically literate and confident to take on other more specialised books.