Thursday, May 14, 2009

Philip Ball

Philip Ball is a London-based writer, and the author of several books on aspects of science and its interactions with other aspects of culture. His latest books are Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind and The Sun and Moon Corrupted (a novel).

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m not sure if this makes it a good or bad time to be asking what I’m reading: I am currently one of the judges for the Royal Society Science Book Prize (formerly the Aventis Prize), which means that the honest answer to the question is ‘too damned much’. Six boxes too much. But of course there are some pleasurable things among them, though I’m scarcely at liberty yet to say what those are.

Aside from all that, I have recently finished Simon Winchester’s biography of Joseph Needham, The Man Who Loved China (HarperCollins). It is extremely good. I’m embarrassed to say that, although Winchester has seemingly always been well reviewed, I’d not read anything of his before. But on the strength of this I can see why he is so highly regarded. Needham, the biochemist-turned-Sinologist who introduced the West to the history of Chinese science, had the kind of life that cried out for a biography, but Winchester doesn’t put a foot wrong, making effective use of his strong knowledge of China and providing a reliably balanced view of Needham’s successes and failures.

This encouraged me to indulge my Sinophile side by reading The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction (Vintage; edited by Carolyn Choa and David Su Li-Qun), an anthology of Chinese writers born during the twentieth century that provides a good overview of the nation’s preoccupations in the past several decades. The tone ranges from strongly satirical to somewhat state-approved – but the latter seems fair enough, as there would be little point in simply giving the West a selection of dissidents. There is no author here as biting as Ma Jian (Red Dust), nor anyone quite as delicate and accomplished as Yiyun Liu, whose short stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Harper Perennial) cover a similar range of issues and eras. But there is plenty of good, engaging writing, and what comes across most clearly is the tremendous pressure that Chinese people have long felt, since even before the Cultural Revolution, to balance the personal with the communal.

I have been reviewing books a fair bit recently. I have just finished Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford University Press) for Nature, which was rewarding in light of my interest in magic as an aspect of the scientific tradition, albeit in the end somewhat light on that particular topic. I am reviewing Eugenie Samuel Reich’s Plastic Fantastic for the Sunday Times, an account of the fraud perpetrated between 1997 and 2002 by physicist Jan Hendrik Schön in the field of advanced microelectronics. Since I know several of the (innocent) players in this story, and was somewhat caught up in it at the time, I was gripped by the details, about which I’d known only a little. No one comes out of this story particularly well, including Nature and Science, which published many of Schön’s papers. I have a few small quibbles, and this isn’t the most poetic science writing you’ll ever read (not obvious that it could be, given the subject matter), but Reich has done an important job in assembling the tale, and the results make sobering reading.

It’s without doubt a very niche taste, but I enjoyed reviewing The Shadow of Enlightenment: Optical and Political Transparency in France, 1789-1848 by Theresa Levitt (Oxford University Press) for Nature Physics rather more than I’d expected. The book, which feels rather like the write-up of a doctoral thesis, looks at the emergence of optics, and in particular studies of light polarization by François Arago and Jean-Baptiste Biot, in the nineteenth century. Doesn’t exactly sound enthralling, does it? But it opens up an absolute treasure trove of ideas and connections, several of which the author didn’t explore herself. I ended up wishing I had twice the space for my review, which appeared in the May issue of the journal.

I have been reading a lot of books on music for my own latest book project, most of which I have been gutting ruthlessly to get at the meat. One that detained me longer than most was Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford University Press). In what I suspect is a characteristic of Scruton, the book is variously stimulating and infuriating. It is not a light read, being full of rather austere musicological theory. But the appealing thing is that, while there is a great deal to disagree with, you always have to think hard about how to do it. I value that in a book.

Finally, I am partway through Charles Dickens’ rewrite of The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (Pushkin Press). Dickens was writing Oliver Twist, aged just 25, when he was asked to edit Grimaldi’s memoirs, and he ended up more or less writing them from scratch in his own inimitable style. The result is all the more compelling because it is presumably at least partly true, although I suppose with Dickens it is hard to tell. Grimaldi was the most famous clown and pantomime performer on the London stage at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The portrait of London here is strange and wonderful and scary – these were the days when a walk up the City Road from Old Street to the Angel Islington took you through open fields. There is a famous tale told of Grimaldi (I’ve not yet discovered if Dickens includes it). A man went to see his doctor, complaining that he was terribly depressed. ‘Ah’, said the doctor, ‘you need to go to see the great Grimaldi to cheer you up.’ ‘I am Joseph Grimaldi’, was the reply.
Learn more about Philip Ball and his work at his website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue