A Teaspoon and an Open Mind by Michael White
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|A Teaspoon and an Open Mind by Michael White|
|Category: Popular Science|
|Reviewer: Paul Harrop|
|Summary: Are time travel and eternal life possible, or merely the stuff of fantasy? The book shows clearly where science fiction ends and science fact begins.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 192||Date: November 2006|
|Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd|
A less cryptic, but more concise, title for this book could have been 'Who Knows?' For it uses as a springboard the current revival of the long-running BBC sci-fi series Dr Who. Its mission: to boldly analyse the things The Doctor takes for granted. Based on the timelord's abilities (time travel; regeneration) or other implications of the show (super-civilisations and robots) it briefly surveys the contemporary frontiers of science.
British writer Michael White's credentials come from a six-year stint teaching science at a sixth-form college in Oxford. But he has also written 25 other books. These include biographies of Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Currently based in Australia, White has been a science editor on GQ magazine and a Sunday Express columnist.
His new book is pitched somewhere between Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, and Bill Bryson's similarly concise chronicle of everything. It takes an enthusiastic but sceptical look at the cherished fantasies, not just of Doctor Who fans, but of science fiction writers from Mary Shelley onwards. Many of these are also mankind's oldest longings: to live forever, to travel beyond the stars; to see into the future, to re-visit the past, or to believe that, somewhere out there, are greater beings than ourselves.
The sad news from this book is that most of those desires will stay unfulfilled. With admirable clarity, White sets out the universal laws which mean that much science fiction will never become science fact. But his bracing realism is balanced by an exciting sense of possibilities. He shows that technology has repeatedly outstripped human imagination throughout history. Early on, he quotes the respected scientist Lord Kelvin's 1892 claim that "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." Eleven years later, the Wright brothers took their first flight.
Readers looking for analysis of Dr Who's abilities may be disappointed by this book. For much of it, apart from a final summary chapter, the Doctor is hardly mentioned. So some of the sci-fi phenomena tackled here have little to do with the show. His chapter on teleportation for example, begins by admitting that the Tardis rarely teleports. In fact, it has more to do with the 'beam me up Scotty' of Star Trek. The chapter on telepathy and telekinesis seemed equally tenuous. A previous Michael White book on the science of the X-Files also deals with this subject. So I did wonder whether a bit of authorial recycling had gone on here.
However, it's a rare skill to explain the most advanced science without resorting to massive over-simplifications or childish analogies. White generally pulls it off. Even I thought I'd grasped the basics of Einstein's theory of relativity or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. And the mind-boggling mathematics and paradoxes surrounding time travel seemed almost within my grasp.
I also find it oddly comforting to be faced with the insignificance of the Earth and of mankind within infinity of space. It puts our everyday worries into perspective. White offers many reminders of that. Other readers may be less enchanted by his offhand dismissal of the barmier likes of the Theosophists and the alien interventionist theories of Erich "Chariots of the Gods' Von Daniken.
White backs up his position with numerous facts and sensible arguments. Amazing statistics abound. For example, a gram of anti-matter is, he claims, worth £10,000,000,000,000,000. And interstellar travellers, even at the near-impossible speeds of only a fraction of the speed of light, would take thousands of years to reach our nearest stars.
The most tangible and exciting frontiers of science explored in the book are those around human longevity. Cloning and stem cell research, and future prosthetic developments are among the most achievable and immediate ways in which fiction could become fact. But as elsewhere, White's excitement at such possibilities is tempered by a sober realism and an acknowledgement of the moral implications.
In a short book, it is inevitable that detail is glossed over or simplified. When you go from the lost city of Atlantis to a discussion of nanobots in a few pages, you'll inevitably provide more breadth than depth. So a short bibliography would have been useful for those inspired to explore these ideas further.
But in the end, what impressed me most about this book was its demonstration that science is at least, if not more, exciting than fiction. References to Dr Who reminded me only of its clunky sets and hammy acting. By contrast, the possibilities offered by cyclotrons and cybernetics are infinitely more glamorous.
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You can read more book reviews or buy A Teaspoon and an Open Mind by Michael White at Amazon.com.
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