Big Science and Big Science Books

Today’s issue of Newsday has my review of Sea of Glory, Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the first great scientific U.S. expedition. The review gets pretty harsh towards the end, despite the fact that the book is an exquisitely researched narrative of a fascinating subject. (What makes it particularly fascinating is that the expedition’s leader, Charles Wilkes, was practically insane.) It’s this very potential that got me so frustrated. Here’s a grand story about a journey to the ends of the Earth, about megalomaniacs, about the dawn of a great nation, about the birth of modern science, about the tragic dimension of empire, and yet Philbrick writes about all this in a style that’s maddeningly pedestrian and dutiful. At one point he tries to offer some penetrating psychological insight into Wilkes’s psyche by quoting from the pop-psychology book Emotional Intelligence. It was one of those moments when you have to tell yourself not to throw the book against the wall.

I may have such a strong reaction because I’ve read so many disappointing books on science. There are plenty of cases in which a solid, straight-ahead journalistic style is the right form for a science book to take. But there are also many opportunities in science to creat literary jewels, and generally those opportunities are squandered. For some reason this is considered a normal state of affairs. Critics rarely hold science writing to the same standards as, say, literary fiction. If a novel was riddled with the flat-footed cliches that plague so many science books, the critics would skewer it. On this score, it seems, most of the reviews of Sea of Glory give it a pass.