Christmas Books: SCIENCE - the Beast That Made Big Bangs
Gribbin, John, The Independent (London, England)
THE BEST science books of 2001 seem to fall into two categories, hard stuff and easy stuff, with one in-between volume. I'll start with the more accessible items, not least because the outstanding book is also one of the easiest to read - The Ape and the Sushi Master, by Frans de Waal (Allen Lane, pounds 20). De Waal studies primate behaviour and has found compelling evidence that human culture is not unique, but differs only in degree from equivalent behaviour seen in other species. Set in an autobiographical framework and drawing on a lifetime's work, this is the clear voice of reason explaining to a lay readership the truth behind the fierce debates that rage around the question of whether human beings are "merely" animals or have some unique spark.
De Waal's work is set neatly in its scientific context by two other books about what makes us human. The familiar story of the discovery of the theory of evolution is presented in an unfamiliar way by Peter Raby in his biography of the other man in the Darwin story, Alfred Russel Wallace, (Chatto & Windus, pounds 20), while the emergence of modern man, Homo erectus, on the evolutionary stage is the theme of Java Man (Little, Brown, pounds 18.99), a book which suffers from having been written by a committee (Garniss Curtis, Carl Swisher and Roger Lewin), but particularly intriguing for its account of the way our own evolutionary line survived while a variety of close relations all seem to have vanished without trace.
Edward Teller's Memoirs (Perseus, pounds 19.99) provide a striking counterpart to de Waal's book, as well as being deeply absorbing in their own right. Here, writ large, we can see humans behaving exactly like other primates, squabbling, fighting, and using weapons. The difference is one of scale, with the weapons including the hydrogen bomb and missile defence systems. But there is a lot more to Teller's take than the story of the H-bomb. Born in Hungary in 1908, he has first hand experience of the upheavals in Europe following the First World War, and his compelling account of the misunderstanding between Bohr and Heisenberg that led Bohr to think that the Nazi regime was about to develop a nuclear bomb is an important contribution to scientific history. I came away with a distinctly less hostile view of Teller the man and an improved understanding of many events I thought I understood. …