Book Review: Flaws, dreams and desires of great scientific minds

Book Review: Flaws, dreams and desires of great scientific minds

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 30 January, 2016
Alison Gopnik, Jane Goodall & Peter Singer.
In his new book, We are all Stardust, the acclaimed science writer and researcher Stefan Klein presents a compendium of the best ideas in contemporary science, writes Anirudh Vohra.

We are all Stardust
By Stefan Klein
Speaking Tiger
Price: 399
Pages: 264

As a layperson and as someone who has never been able to grasp the great mysteries, equations, and complications of science, We are all Stardust  can seem like a difficult book to read through. We can be unsure of how we would navigate the ideas about the topics that we do not understand. But a few pages into the book, what becomes evident is that this isn’t going to be an easy or a difficult read: it is merely going to be a read.

Stefan Klein, the acclaimed writer behind The Science of Happiness and The Secret Pulse of Time, is on a mission to connect laypeople with the diverse and often misunderstood realm of science. With We are all Stardust, Klein sits down with some of the world’s most prominent scientists and asks them the questions that we want to ask, but possibly don’t feel like we have enough knowledge to do so. The result is pages and pages of casual conversation with people that, at first, seem so extraordinary that we will never understand them. Yet, Klein brings them back to earth, and we learn that they are just like us: curious humans who are merely trying to navigate the complexities of life.

Stefan Klein, for this book, interviewed nineteen scientists from different fields. He states in his introduction that this leads to a very narrow cross-section of a very large whole, and I have to agree. The interviewees are people who have made a difference to Klein’s own research and worldview. The majority of these scientists are European due to Klein’s own German upbringing.

Interviews that stand out include those of cosmologist Martin Rees, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, neuropharmacologist Walter Zieglgänsberger, and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. Why these scientists in particular struck a chord is obvious; each one speaks through the pages and into the mind and heart in a way that one wouldn’t think was possible with scientists. Their words were not only about scientific facts and evidence, but also about philosophical dilemmas, mental and physical illnesses, and about living a whole and unified existence.

When We are all Stardust was published in English, all the interviews were translated from the original German edition. So at times the translation feels clunky and has some troubles when it comes to easy readability.

This could be due to translation issues, but it seems like Klein sometimes had difficulty asking the right questions. A few interviews feel as if they weren’t taking the path they should have. Klein’s interviews did give a nice insight into the lives and personalities of the scientists themselves but personally we would have preferred to have a bit more insight into their hypotheses and experiments.

Despite a few issues and dislikes, one would have to agree that this book achieves what it sets out to do. As it says on the cover: “Scientists who shaped our world talk about their work, their lives, and what they still want to know.”

It’s also thoroughly enjoyable to read Klein’s account of his discussions with these leading natural and social scientists. One may come out thinking that there was no real theme, just an account of scientists chatting about what’s important to them or maybe not so important but fun.

Interviews that stand out include those with cosmologist Martin Rees, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, neuropharmacologist Walter Zieglgänsberger, and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik.

Klein was aware of his own role in these conversations, steering them, giving us introductions to them, and ultimately, of course, enjoying some of them much more than others. And if you don’t know at the outset that Klein lived in Germany (it’s prepublication, an ebook, no author bio at the beginning), one may not understand all the little digs at Germany until about halfway through. It turns out that’s scientist humor. Anyway, with Klein’s role acknowledged, It felt they were great interview reads, allowing us to get a feel for the personalities of these famous scientists and the nature of the work they do.

The scientists have a huge range of outlooks and interests. A couple of them were clearly more, aware of their own greatness than I was comfortable with, but Klein didn’t have to say it. The rest were surprisingly humble. Science really is a collaborative field, and these folks realize that. Most of them have figured out how to get along with people and how to talk to people. That’s part of why they’re famous.

With an impressive list of interviewees, the premise of the book is a simple idea: sit down with these scientists and talk to them about their work and their lives, the resulting compilation provides a coherent overview of what the sciences look like today and how the discoveries of recent times affect us as individuals, members of society, and of a part of the broader community of inhabitants of the world.

So there’s no real unifying theme, but we’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the philosophy of science, or science and ethics especially. When discussing their lives and influences, many of the interview subjects circled around those questions.

All in all, this book is strongly recommended for biography readers and science enthusiasts who want to take a look at what events have shaped the lives of influential scientists, and how their scientific discoveries have changed the way they see the world.

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