Stephen Hawking is the man who has tried to explain The Universe in a Nutshell. He might deserve a prize just for a title that sums up what popular science books are all about. The metaphor for Hawking’s bid to enclose the great mystery of the universe in 200 pages contains a kernel of truth. You really could use a nutshell as a text for a sermon about creation. The hydrogen in its chemical makeup was hammered into existence 15 billion years ago, in the first seconds of time itself. The carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and so on that make up the rest of it were forged in the thermonuclear furnace of a star.
In dying, this star showered an explosion of elements across the vastness of space, some of which were swept up in the formation of a new star, surrounded by a suite of nine planets, one of which was just small enough, warm enough and solid enough to act as a stage for yet more improbable events. Somewhere on this planet, in a warm little pond, or near a submarine volcano, or on a sunlit beach, chemistry became biochemistry. Life emerged from a haphazard series of chemical events. Life requires resources and energy.
The first were supplied by the dust from the long-dead star, the second came from the newborn sun. Green things evolved, consuming the original atmosphere of carbon dioxide, building tissue from carbon and other elements, and discarding the oxygen as waste. Fleshy, oxygen-breathing things evolved, to feed on plants and consume oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, to keep the cycle going. So in the tissue of the nutshell there lies the whole epic of creation, from Big Bang to stardust, from nut to nuthatch.
Novelists and poets look for their stories from within the human experience. Science books at their best provide a kind of crib for the true script of creation. Science writers look outwards, and decipher the narrative of time in the stars, the rocks, and the cellular tissue of life. They also emerge with a wonderfully literal kind of poetry. Our destiny may not be written in the stars, but our past certainly is. Blake sang of seeing the world in a grain of sand.
Hannah Holmes – with Stephen Hawking, one of the six authors in pursuit of a £10,000 Aventis science book prize tonight – perhaps unconsciously picked up Blake’s idea and produced another potential winner in The Secret Life of Dust. This is an epic about the bits of dead skin, eroded mountain, pounded bone, decayed wood and burnt oil that shift across the planet every second of the day, shaping continents and shaping lives. Blake also sang of holding infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. Hawking picked up Blake’s challenge. So did Martin Gorst, author of Aeons.
Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century calculated, using the chronologies of the Bible, that the world had been created in 4004 BC. But later researchers – many of them also churchmen – looked not at books but at the writing in the dust and the rocks and the heavens and came to a different conclusion. Gradually, they pieced together an ever-expanding history of time in an ever-expanding universe, and helped put human presumption in its place: on a speck of rock circling an unimportant star in a galaxy of 100bn stars in a universe of at least 100bn galaxies.
But Blake also saw heaven in a wildflower. So far, planet Earth is the only place in the universe known to have produced flowers, or intelligent animals. Robert Sapolsky, in A Primate’s Memoir, and David Horrobin, in The Madness of Adam and Eve, address the emergence of social behaviour in primates and the part schizophrenia might have played in the making of human intelligence. Both books look not at the great sweep of research into the universe but the exhilarating debate within science itself, about why humans are as they are, where they might have come from and where they might be going.
It could be the most important lesson to be gained from popular science books: that science is as much about questions as about answers, about argument as well as about discovery. Indeed, the outsider in the Aventis prize, Rivals, by Michael White, is about the often bitter disputes that have raged within science. Pollsters from time to time show that people don’t “trust” scientists. But this could be a sign of a healthy attitude, rather than a cynical one: scientists are human, and therefore capable of folly.
Science, too, moves on: Professor Hawking became the publisher’s dream author more than a decade ago when his A Brief History of Time notched up 6 million copies in hardback alone. But he would not now write the same book. That is because science is an unfolding story of an adventure that will end only when humans do. Tune in for the next episode. The annual Aventis science book prize will be announced tonight.