vol. 24 no. 4, December, 2019

Book Reviews

Gross, Alan G. The scientific sublime: popular science unravels the mysteries of the universe Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. x, 314 p. ISBN 978-0-19-063777-4. £19.99.

Alan G. Gross is a name that the science and scientific communication researchers will recognize and remember. He is the author of The rhetoric of science (Gross, 1990), has co-authored a work exploring the history and features of scientific article (Gross et al., 2002) and other books. His engagement with studying how science speaks to lay audiences, how scientists and scholars address issues of communicating their findings to society, communities or talking to media and politicians is deep and his work is known by the communication scholars, but also by his many readers.

The scientific sublime is a very attractively written and interesting book. Though it is not among those that fit exactly the profile of our other reviews, I was tempted to introduce it to our readers. It may be especially interesting to those who are working with media and communicating scientific knowledge outside the scholarly community. The book will not provide any recipes for how to do it better or which methods to apply, but it may generate interesting ideas in a more indirect manner.

Besides, it seemed to me that the book can be classified as a reference or bibliographic genre as it is a book about books and reviews the popular science works written by outstanding scientists themselves. It not only presents these works, it analyses them and introduces the authors as scientists and as popularizers of scientific knowledge. Thus, the part one focuses on six outstanding physicists who have achieved the highest ranks as scientists, but also became as popular as rock stars through their popular writings. Six witty and thoughtful essays present different types of approach to writing successful popular books on physics. The author chooses the brightest stars: Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg, Lisa Randall, Brian Green, and, of course, Stephen Hawking. Each of these scientists has produced a very popular book related to their research or physics in general. The most famous of all is A brief history of time by Hawking, but others are also well-known and appreciated by the public, and written with great brilliance. The analysis of their popular texts is close and critical, the strengths and the weaknesses are exposed. The author seeks to understand the secret of the popularity of each of these authors and disclose it to the reader. He also tries to connect the text characteristics with its author's character. Sometimes it is very successful, sometimes becomes somewhat confusing, but in each case it is an interesting read.

The second part is devoted to the essays about five biologists: Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Edward O. Wilson. There are six chapters in this part, but two of them are devoted to the works of the same author - S.J.Gould. I would say that the matter of this chapter is more diverse and ranges into more areas than biology, such as linguistics, psychology and environmental ethics. There is a less evident star in this part. Other readers may regard one of the presented authors as a star if the reviewed work is known to them best. On the other hand, it is difficult to measure the popularity in decibels or meters. The only reliable measure may be a number of sold books, but neither I, nor the author of The scientific sublime are interested in it very much, though Gross produces some of these figures. This part is written with equal insight into the approach to popularising the scientific achievements, into the passion of the writers, and the narrative, which makes readers experience the wonders of the world, and extraordinary skill of writing that affects reader's emotions and feelings.

In some cases, Gross succeeds to provide the understanding of the analysed work to the extent that reader feels as if the primary text in all its glory has been read already. The dissection and presentation of the analysis is enough and even manages to evoke the the same feeling of wonder and enchantment that is described by the author, who names this wonder scientific sublime.

These two main parts of the book are preceded by the first chapter, in which the author presents his concept of sublime and its expression in nature, literature, philosophy, art, and science. Actually, Gross builds a theoretical explanation of the popularity of the popular science texts based on the notion of sublime. I have read this chapter with great interest. It helped to understand the approach of the author to the analysed texts to a great extent.

The book is closed by the part 3, chapter 13 Move over, God. I thought it was an unnecessary appendix to the otherwise very interesting book. The aim of the chapter in itself is worthy: the author discusses science and religion as equally significant attempts at understanding the human condition. He also criticises Dawkins's work The God delusion. I would agree with most of the critical comments about the Dawkins's text, but A. Gross is not very coherent in advocating the case of religion. It seems he is conflating faith, religion, Bible studies, phylosophy, mythology, and church into one big conglomerate, while all of these concepts are quite distinctive and different from each other. The reason of presenting statistics of believers in Genesis or evolution was entirely beyond me. The author seemed to understand that he is making a flawed argument and tried to repair it by additional explanations, but they still were not convincing enough. I also was disappointed that the author saw only one religion as worthy of advocating and did not make a case for any others, which may be closer to the experiencing of scientific sublime than quoted Bible myths, even if they are enshrined in Western scholarly and religious traditions.

From the point of view of a bibliographer or a reference librarian, the book as a whole can serve as a perfect source of information about the best science popularisation works. It may be used to ignite the interest of readers and move them to reading the texts presented in the book in their original form.


Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
November, 2019

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2019). Review of: Gross, Alan G. The scientific sublime: popular science unravels the mysteries of the universe Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Information Research, 24(4), review no. R677 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs677.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.