Monday, 27 November 2006

The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, 2002

The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, Ebury Press/Random House, hardback, 2002, 368 pages, NZ$59.95.
ISBN 0-091-88273-7

Explosion of ideas

Terry Pratchett is one of the few writers able to tickle the funny bone and stir the imagination simultaneously. There are too few funny writers and there are even fewer funny writers whose work is intellectually stimulating. Ian Stewart is a mathematician (author of the best-seller Does God Play Dice?) and Jack Cohen is a biologist (co-author of Evolving the Alien), and they are both experts at making science understandable and interesting. Bringing these three together produced an explosion of ideas in The Science of Discworld, which showed how life might function on a flat world carried through space on the backs of four elephants supported on a turtle.

Now, in the way that the Plague was followed by the Great Fire, this trio has created The Science of Discworld II: the Globe. The subject this time is a peculiar planet, Earth, which was created as an intellectual exercise by the wizards of Unseen University. Earth is unusual in that magic doesn’t work there. When elves try to control the minds of Earth’s social apes, the wizards set about trying to grasp the idea of science.

In the even chapters, Terry Pratchett provides a witty account of the wizards’ contacts with ancient Greek thinkers, paleolithic cavepainters and a bunch of lowbrows who just sit on a beach eating shellfish. Along the way Ridcully, Stibbons, Hex and the Dean create, destroy and re-create Renaissance England, although they need several attempts to get one where Shakespeare writes the plays they tell him about. Discworld readers will know the originals; newcomers have several treats in store. Speaking of treats, Rincewind finally gets some potatoes, and people do start thinking. Even if it is only about potatoes.

In the odd chapters, the scientists show that we are the story-telling chimpanzee, although ‘the memetic transmission of ideologies’ may be a more graceful way of persuading us that our minds are metaphor machines. They tell some darned good stories themselves, including why there is never enough space on the bookshelf and why the Cohens only seem to commit adultery less often than their neighbours. Warning: This book contains metafootnotes, elves, alchemy, Bombastus and a 300 pound orang-utang; something to start everyone thinking.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on June 15th 2002.

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