Time to say a few words in praise of lateral reading. I’m a great fan of lateral reading – not just via links but also in books. You know how that goes – you read an essay which sends you to a book which sends you to two more books and you find connections you didn’t know about. This is why (at last it can be revealed) I know absolutely nothing about anything in any depth: because I read laterally rather than vertically. I’ve never read an entire book from beginning to end in my life, but I’ve read two pages of a million or so. But never mind – I comfort myself with Johnson’s retort when Elphinston said ‘What, have you not read it through?’ – to wit: ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’ Also with Bacon’s ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’ Mind you, I skip the chewed and digested part, but I’m a great taster.

So. I read an essay of Philip Kitcher’s the other day, ‘A Plea for Science Studies.’ It said some interesting things about Martin Rudwick’s The Great Devonian Controversy and it also mentioned and quoted from a review of same by Stephen Jay Gould in An Urchin in the Storm – a book I happen to have an old copy of, with a hedgehog (is an urchin a hedgehog?) in front of a tornado on the cover. So I read the review, and that confirmed the impression Kitcher had already given me that I really ought to read this Rudwick book without delay. It was this comment that did it:

After a superficial first glance, most readers of good will and broad knowledge might dismiss The Great Devonian Controversy as being too much about too little. They would be making one of the biggest mistakes of their intellectual lives.

Well that’s the sort of admonition I can never ignore, so I got The Great Devonian Controversy out of the library along with Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth and Democracy (and a few other items, but that needn’t concern us here – just a few more books to read two pages of). Read parts of the Kitcher book – Chapter One, Chapter Eight, Chapter Eleven, more or less simultaneously as opposed to sequentially. Laterally, you see. The book has three bookmarks poking out of it now. Chapter Eleven caused me to read another Gould essay, this one in Ever Since Darwin, which I have in a nice old Pelican with a whimsical moose on the cover – ‘Biological Potentiality v Biological Determinism.’ It’s interesting stuff – and The Great Devonian Controversy is, just as everyone said, highly interesting. It’s about a disagreement over geology in the 1830s…so of course as one reads one keeps thinking ‘Darwin. He must have known about all this…’ So (being lateral) I put down The Great Devonian Controversy and picked up the first volume of Janet Browne’s brilliant biography of Darwin. Read it? Not that I have, but I’ve read quite a lot of it, at various times. I remembered from previous incomplete readings that Darwin had been interested in Lyell, and I’d been intrigued by something Rudwick says about Lyell’s having created the myth of a split between catastrophists and uniformitarians. I knew I’d read about that in Browne’s book so wanted to refresh my memory – so found Lyell in the Index and started with him, but then kept getting pushed back earlier and earlier to find the beginning, with Henslow and Sedgwick.

So there’s a very long preamble – to lead up to the fact that I wanted to mention one or two items from the Browne biography, simply because I think they’re interesting, and I wanted to explain how I got there. Now you know. It’s spring 1831, Darwin is a student at Cambridge, his friend Henslow the professor of botany at Cambridge has got his friend Adam Sedgwick, the professor of geology at Cambridge, to take Darwin along on a geology field trip.

Darwin was hardly complacent either. He secretly practised his geology in the fields around home before Sedgwick got there, hoping to impress him before they took to the hills together, and was chastened to find it a great deal harder than he expected.

I find that interesting in various ways. The fact that he was chastened, the fact that he hadn’t expected it to be so hard, the fact that it was (and is) hard. And it resonates interestingly with something Rudwick says that snagged my attention. (This is where the lateral reading comes in. The comment was fresh in my mind because I’d just read it, whereas it wouldn’t have been if I’d read the whole book before picking up the Browne. That, I think, is why I like reading laterally. It seems to make it easier to see such connections.) What Rudwick says (on page 10) is in a section titled ‘Research as Skilled Craftsmanship’ (see? it connects already – young Darwin was trying to improve and practice his craftsmanship, and finding it not easy). He talks about Michael Polyani’s emphasis on the communal framework of tacit knowledge –

like the skills of the craftsman, they are learned not from textbooks but by working alongside a more experienced practitioner within a living communal tradition. This picture of scientific work as skilled craftsmanship…jarred…against the fiercely held convictions of many philosophers…Even now, its validity would be more widely appreciated if those who analyze scientific work were not generally such narrow bookish people, and if they had firsthand experience not only of scientific reserach itself but also of skilled manual crafts outside the intellectual or academic sphere altogether.

There. I like the way those two things resonate with each other – and with further things, like the low status scientific subjects had in British education for years and years. There’s a scene in ‘Breaking the Code’ in which the adolescent Turing says that one of the masters at his school still refers to science as ‘stinks’. Science had low status, I read somewhere once, don’t ask me where, precisely because it was manual work, because it did involve getting the hands dirty. It was all too much like just plain labour. (Although geology was also, confusingly and complicatingly, like Good Clean Sport, and just the thing for gentlemen; Rudwick’s book is all about the gentlemen aspect. But there are complications. Some gentlemen geologists got mistaken for laborers at times, breaking rocks with their hammers. Then there’s the fact that Robert Darwin was a doctor – which was not a high-status profession at the time. Keats and his pills, Dr Johnny, you know. But that’s by the way.)

Another thing it resonates with is this lovely post at Pharyngula yesterday.

I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but the root of it has to lie in teaching kids to enjoy figuring things out. One geeky personal example: I got introduced to model rocketry when I was in fifth grade, and I was a member of the model rocket club at my school up through junior high. I think, though, that I built precisely two rockets and launched them just once. The first time I’d watched these things, the instructor had handed me some gadget that I looked through and measured the angle to the rocket at the top of its flight, and showed me how to calculate how far it went. That was it for me. Who cared about balsa wood and cardboard when there was geometry and trigonometry to do? I thought Calvin’s problem was the fun part!

There’s more. There’s the shell in the quarry and how Sedgwick laughed, and what an impression his laughter made on young Darwin. But this is long enough for now, and I have to rush away.

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