Monday, March 20, 2023

Scientifica Historica by Brian Clegg

Beautifully illustrated history of science books
Scientific Historica
, published in 2019, is an illustrated history of science books from ancient times to the present. It highlights important and influential science books written and published all over the world. At 8" x 9.5
", filled with color images, this is a sort of mini-coffee-table volume that celebrates the history of science publishing. The author Brian Clegg is a science writer himself, best known for his book A Brief History of Infinity, published in 2003.

Even if you never actually read this book, the images alone are worth the cover price. This book reproduces covers and pages from hundreds of historic volumes. Book collectors and graphic designers will find the visuals fascinating, since the selection of images in Scientifica Historica inevitably presents a historical overview of book design, scientific illustration, and information graphics. The history begins with clay tablets and hand-copied manuscripts before moving into the age of printing. The mathematical diagrams of Euclid’s Elements, the functional planetary charts of Peter Bienewitz’s Astronomicum Caesareum, the chemical hieroglyphics of John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy, and the botanical and zoological etchings of many a 19th-century naturalist are both a visual and intellectual joy to behold. The illustrations get somewhat less impressive as the narrative moves into the late twentieth century, at which point the glory days of scientific illustrations, diagrams, and maps seem to have passed, and the images presented are book covers only.

While the illustrations are very interesting to look through, the writing is often pretty dry. This isn’t really a history of science, after all, but rather a history of science writing. Clegg discusses such matters as how English replaced Latin as the dominant lingua franca of science, or how the field of science writing gradually moved from specialized treatises for highly educated readers to more popular science books for the general reading public. Some of the books discussed are included because they were very important in the history of science, like Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Others, like Audubon’s Birds of America or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, are highlighted because they achieved a level of popularity that allowed them to successfully bring science education to the masses.

Scientifica Historica is a well-conceived study of its subject that manages to be both comprehensive and concise. Although the text isn’t always exciting reading, Clegg does describe the contents of each historic volume well enough for the reader to decide whether he or she would like to read the book in question. An appendix lists the 150 major books discussed in the text (though additional books are mentioned briefly), providing an impressive reading list for those interested in the history of science. About two-thirds of those texts are old enough to be in the public domain, and so free downloadable copies should exist online. For any reader with more than a passing interest in the history of science or the history of the book, browsing through this attractive volume certainly inspires one to seek out and read some of these landmark scientific works of the past. 
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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Out of Their Minds by Clifford D. Simak

Possibly Simak’s worst
I’m in the process of reading my way through Clifford D. Simak’s complete works. With only a handful of novels left, I come to Out of Their Minds, published in 1970. Though I consider myself a diehard Simak fan, I found little to like in this book. In fact, thinking back over the course of his body of work, I can’t recall another book of his that I liked less than this one. From Chapter 1, I found the story boring and silly, and it never improved over the entire length of the novel.

The narrator, Horton Smith, is a minor celebrity due to his career as a radio and television personality. He is taking a break from that career, however, in order to author a book. In hopes of finding the peace and quiet to devote himself to writing, Smith returns to his hometown of Pilot Knob after a long time away. Like many a small town in Simak’s works, Pilot Knob is a slice of rural Americana inhabited by salt-of-the-earth people with conservative family values. Smith expects the town will have changed some during his years of absence, but he is unprepared for what he encounters when he arrives. On a country road outside of town, his car is run off the road by a charging triceratops. Though some farmers residing nearby welcome him into their home, offering him food and shelter, he inexplicably wakes up in a cave full of rattlesnakes. This is but the beginning of a chain of strange phenomena and dangerous situations that seem to arise out of nowhere to threaten Smith’s life.

The title has a double meaning. The phrase Out of Their Minds could refer to persons who are insane, but in this case it primarily pertains to characters and events from people’s imaginations that manifest themselves in physical reality, literally arising out of their minds. Smith believes there is a parallel world of beings who have sprung from mankind’s imagination and developed independent consciousness and sentience. Usually these beings remain hidden in the shadows, leaving their existence a matter of speculation. When a real-world human finds out that they actually exist, however, as Smith does when tipped off by a dying colleague, these beings from the world of imagination try to kill the aware individual in order to protect their concealment.

That sounds like a whimsical premise that might offer ample opportunity for some fantastical Twilight Zone plots, but Simak tries to justify these beings of pure thought using Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is a poorly thought-out and ridiculous excuse for the author to indulge in whatever strikes his fancy. Anything goes in Out of Their Minds—cartoon characters, the aforementioned dinosaur, and beings from mythical, religious, and historical folklore all come to life. The lack of rules makes for a nonsensical and meandering story that despite the no-holds-barred abandonment of reality is nonetheless quite boring. There is a Civil War scene in this novel for no other reason than Simak seems to have thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Civil War scene?” Perhaps, but not in this novel, where it clearly doesn’t belong in the same story with gnomes, demons, and dinosaurs.

Simak was a talented and visionary writer in both science fiction and fantasy literature, and he received critical acclaim and awards for his writing in both genres. In my opinion, however, his sci-fi is far superior to his fantasy, and Out of Their Minds isn’t even good fantasy. Though I haven’t quite finished all his books, when all is read and done I suspect that this novel will probably end up being my least favorite of his works.
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