Maybe it's not after all the Nuclear Age we live in, nor the Post-Industrial Age, but the Age of Packaging. Books, for instance, are becoming more beautiful; graphic designers are growing ever more clever, ever more important to the publishing enterprise. The coffee-table format, in myriad ingenious variations, is capturing some of the best contemporary writing, and putting it on display like Jim Thorpe in a carnival headdress. I say bah and humbug.
"The Search for Solutions" is an apt example of its odious trend. horace Freeland Judson is one of the finer science writers currently working in English , and his lucid prose needs to be gussied up inside fancy graphic design like Lawrence Olivier needs a press agent. Judson has written a complicated and wide-ranging essay in nine parts, on a rather amorphous subject best encapsuled as "How Science Happens." Each of the nine chapters describes different discoveries and different methods in a variety of different branches of science, from astrophysics to molecular biology to seismology, and each of the nine is itself almost a self-contained essay, unified with the rest only by the recurrence of the themes ("Pattern," "Change," "Feedback," "Modeling," "Theory") identified in the chapter titles. This loose-jointed peripatetic approach is both promising and demanding, and what it demands most of all is our close continuing attention to Judson's line of argument. Yet the book, with its gaudy color photographs (many only tenuously relevant), its 300-word captions to those photos (sometimes redundant with the text, sometimes not), its boxed interviews with eminent scientists cropping in here and there, is a nuthouse of interruptions interrupting the interruptions.
An example: At one point Judson is recounting the processes of mind that led a very brilliant physicist named Paul Dirac, in 1930, to his realization of the existence of antimatter -- a fascinating story. Turn the page, and come upon a pretty photo essay, with copy, on the history of dome architecture since the Romans. Are we supposed to read this digression, admire it, then leap back to Dirac? Dirac who? Are we supposed to ignore the domes until later? Then why are they shoved forward now? Who's in charge here?
In his acknowledgements, Judson gives thanks by name to the book's designer, Arnold Skolnick, whose commission was "to be dramatic yet unobstrusive." Not to pick on Arnold Skolnick, but his misguided panache does nothing butm obtrude. Working through "The Search for Solutions" is an exercise in frustration, something like trying to read Kenneth Clark's fine book on Leonardo while watching reruns of "Civilisation" on Channel 2.
Behind all the flash and splash, there may lurk a cogent, circuitous essay on the methodology of science. Or maybe not. Who can tell?