Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Pratchett Method

It's been too long since I've read any Terry Pratchett. I've read pretty much all of his extant Discworld novels, but there are a few spin-off books that I've held on reserve. One item on that list is The Science of Discworld, which I just finished reading.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, although it turned out to be quite different than I had expected. Knowing only the title, I had imagined it to be a sort of pseudo-encyclopedia, something that describes how various things work in the Discworld: Great A'tuin, Leonard of Quirm's inventions, the Clacks, Mad Snapcase's architecture, and so on.

Instead, it turns out to be primarily about science on our world, and entirely consists of prose with no illustrations. The book consists of alternating chapters. One set of chapters, written by Pratchett, are set in Discworld and tell a stand-alone story, the length of a slim novel. The other chapters are writing by two British scientists, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (with, I suspect, at least some input from Pratchett). These are non-fiction, and use the Pratchett story as a jumping-off point to discuss scientific topics.

Part of what's so refreshing about this book is that it isn't just, or even primarily, about scientific facts, theories, or history. Instead, it primarily focuses on science itself: the benefits and limitations of the scientific method, the skeptical mindset, the process of learning and refining our knowledge.

This shows up in a lot of different ways, but one of the biggest is what they refer to as "lies-to-children" (an echo of the "lies-to-wizards" that Ponder Stibbons traffics in). Simply put, these are the explanations we give regarding how things work. They aren't technically true, but satisfy a non-expert's curiosity while getting them closer to the truth. As people gain more knowledge they can revisit these questions and learn more complex answers, but those new answers themselves may not be true either. And, even the best answers we do have are only the best answers we know now; science continually learns new answers that replace our old ones.

We often think of science in black-and-white terms, as being true or false. This is especially true when science is raised in a political setting or in opposition to religion. This isn't the best way to treat science, though... turning science into an idol of rigid beliefs and doctrines subverts the purpose of science itself. I'm reminded of John Cleese's fantastic tweet, "I would like 2016 to be the year when people remembered that science is a method of investigation, and NOT a belief system." I think science is better thought of as a verb than as a noun. It's something you do, a way of doing things, not merely a snapshot of the currently-held beliefs of major scientists.

(Er, to be clear, I do believe in climate change - when the overwhelming majority of scientists believe the same thing, we need to pay attention. Science should inform our politics, and as science presents new facts, we should react accordingly. But politics should not drive our science, because doing so corrupts its process.)

It's a good thing that the book focuses on the mutable nature of science, because, boy, it has not aged all that well. It was first published in 1999, received an update in 2002 to correct some new discoveries, then they basically threw their hands in the air and said "Eh, forget it" for the past 15 years. It's kind of amusing to read respected scientists earnestly reporting how we don't know whether there are other planets outside of the Solar System (but probably are), or counting Pluto among the planets (while commenting on its weird elliptical orbit). In that respect it vaguely reminds me of Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line," another book that combined fantastic timeless principles with excellent writing and immediately obsolete examples.

While the science portion of the book is mostly interested in the process of science, it definitely doesn't limit itself to that, and throughout the book it covers a huge range of topics. We learn about the Big Bang, quantum physics, nuclear reactions, different types of stars, the formation of the Earth and the Moon, geological ages, continental drift, evolution, dinosaurs, and more. It also includes speculation about potential future advances, like space elevators and generation ships. The overall structure reminds me a lot of Cosmos (both the classic Sagan version and the excellent recent Tyson version), both for the ground it covers and for the great way it connects scientific topics back to us. It makes clear that we are small and insignificant in the scope of the universe, but that we have enormous opportunities to improve ourselves, our species, and our planet.

Near the end of the book, it also gets into some interesting aspects of sociology and psychology. One topic it brings up, which I hadn't been familiar with before, was the concept of "extelligence". This is the knowledge that originates outside of our minds: what is conveyed through oral traditions and books and web sites and other cultural sources. They make the reasonable point that, even if someone were to create a perfect clone of your DNA and create a person who looks like you, you wouldn't be anything alike. Our personalities are hugely driven by the environments we grow up in, the literature we encounter, the television shows we watch, the sermons we hear, all of which help inform our understanding of the world and our role in it. Extelligence, they argue, is the true reason humans are the dominant life form on earth: we've gotten incredibly good at passing forward our knowledge, so each new human being doesn't need to start from scratch, but can quickly come up to speed on what prior generations have learned over thousands of years before.

Which, incidentally, is not an unmitigated good. The book is filled with fantastic quotes, which I sadly neglected to mark while I was reading. Here's a late one that struck me:
"On the Internet, the full diversity of views is, or at least can be represented. It is quite democratic; the views of the stupid and the credulous carry as much weight as the views of those who can read without moving their lips. If you think that the Holocaust didn't actually happen, and you can shout loud enough, and you can design a good web page, then you can be in there slugging it out with other people who believe that recorded history should have some kind of connection with reality."

Well. Not much has changed in fifteen years, after all.


The Discworld portion of the book is a really fun, stand-alone tale. It entirely takes place within Unseen University, which I think is a good choice. As a collection of squabbling colleagues, the wizards are a terrific parallel to the scientific community. The wizards have great personalities, and it's nice to spend an extended amount of time with them.

The conceit of the story is pretty fun. A magic experiment goes horribly wrong, and they discover that they've created a universe. Not just any universe, though: our universe. The wizards are terribly disappointed, of course. Our universe operates by different laws, which baffle them. Everything is so round here! Things keep moving in straight lines! Planets just hang in the middle of space, instead of being carried on the back of elephants and turtles like a proper planet! To say nothing of the complete absence of narrativium.

I was slightly bummed when Rincewind made an appearance partway into the book - not that I dislike him, but I enjoy his novels less than other Pratchett books. Fortunately, this book uses him perfectly. He's dropped into one dangerous situation after another, and reacts as you might expect (by this point it's increasingly difficult to faze him, as he's almost completely composed of pure pessimism), but the bulk of the narrative is still carried by the faculty wizards, and Rincewind manages to spice that up nicely.

I chuckled a lot while reading the book, but, as noted before, I failed to write down most of the passages. Here are a couple I was able to find later:

"Nice place, though. Nice colours. Particularly good horizons, once you get used to them. Lots of dullness, punctuated by short periods of death."

"Don't pay attention, Stibbons," said Ridcully wearily. "He's been spouting this stuff ever since he tried to understand HEX's write-out. It's complete gibberish. What's 'n', then, old chap?"
"Umpt," said the Bursar.
"Ah, imaginary numbers again," said the Dean. "That's the one he says should come between three and four."
"There isn't a number between three and four," said Ridcully.
"He imagines there is," said the Dean.
Down under the warm water, the strange creature's stone structure collapsed for the umpteenth time.

"They used to think that rubbish heaps actually generated rats," said Ridcully. "Of course, that was just a superstition. It's really seagulls."

Of course, [the Bursar] was a natural mathematician, and one thing a natural mathematician wants to do is get away from actual damn sums as quickly as possible and slide into those bright sunny uplands where everything is explained by letters in a foreign alphabet, and no one shouts very much. This was even better than that. The hard-to-digest idea that there were dozens of dimentions rolled up where you couldn't see them was sheer jelly and ice cream to a man who saw lots of things no one else saw.

"Rincewind, that remark was extremely cynical and accurate."
"Sorry, Archchancellor."


The Science of Discworld isn't what I expected, but it was a lot of fun, and it even tricked me into learning a couple of things! There are several other Science of Discworld books, and I imagine I'll read through those as well in the future. I'm sad that Sir Terry is no longer with us, but glad that he was so prolific and left so many great books behind for us. While he was primarily a satirist, he had a keen moral compass, and books like this show that he was interested in our minds as well as our hearts.

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