Sitting here trying to compose a review of around 500 words each month can be tough going. As a part time reviewer, I have to pick a book, read it, and hope it gives me something to say. Professor Gould has been writing a monthly essay of 5,000 words plus for over 23 years, and they still enthrall. In fact, they read better in a book than in the original journal - if only because they are revisited, footnoted where necessary, and trimmed judiciously if necessary, though not to second guess the original content; rather, the good professor notes where he has been proved wrong, or new evidence has come to his hands.
Now, I will admit to holding a science degree, but that doesn't mean I actually like the subject. Now that I no longer have anything to do with pure science, I can enjoy the fascination of others as they unravel the ways of nature, and Professor Gould is a wonderful guide. He would be a good writer in any field - witty, cultured, widely-read, at home with his background and aware that there is a wider world outside that of science. He writes knowledgeably of Jewish traditions, of Bach chorales and of baseball, a love which is unrepentantly thrust at his readers. Those of us who have never quite been able to understand the lure of a game in which only three players seem to be involved most of the time can forgive him this foible for the light he throws on famous men, on history and on the quest of scientific truth.
For example, the current volume mentions Leonardo, Darwin, Pope Pius XII, Mendes da Costa, and many others. It also treats of the dodo, of lesser-known scientists, of the Diet of Worms, the Defenestration of Prague, and the tantalizing and infuriating unwillingness of Christopher Columbus to pick up a land snail when he first touched the Americas.
Gould has declared his intention to quit his series when the Millennium is upon us. I regretted his decision when first made, and I would still urge him to reconsider, but I can understand why he would want to bow out before his quality left him. This series of essays is perhaps not as sparkling as those of, say, "The Panda's Thumb", but they still lie miles ahead of much science writing for the interested layperson.
His attention to detail, and his insistence on primary sources, mark him as a ready source of instruction for young scientists today. Read about the giraffe's long neck, and what exactly Darwin did and did not say about it, and you'll see what I mean. And if you'll forgive an eccentric view from across the Atlantic, if you have men and women of the caliber, intelligence and culture of Professor Gould to call upon, how do you explain Congress?
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.