Jim Alkhalili

Book review: ‘The Joy of Science’ by Jim Al-Khalili

Image credit: Nick Smith

The life-affirming result of time spent in lockdown reflecting on why science matters so much.

“When you haven’t been properly introduced to a subject, it can seem downright forbidding,” says Jim Al-Khalili in the preface to his slender volume that sets out to explain to those who haven’t yet read the memo just why science is not only crucial but one of life’s great pleasures.

While the poet Keats thought that Newton had destroyed the rainbow by explaining how prisms work, the theoretical physicist Al-Khalili goes into raptures about refraction. And it’s a good place to start a primer on how to think scientifically – plenty of other writers have started here too – because, if nothing else, rainbows aren’t forbidding.

Although entitled ‘The Joy of Science’ (Princeton University Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780691211572), this book might just as easily have been called the gentle philosophy of our scientific method. This is because, in his communication of why he rates the discipline so highly as a way of understanding the world, Al-Khalili is also fulfilling a self-appointed duty to explain why it is important. The product of a time of reflection during the Covid-19 lockdowns, his new book starts from the position that “the fate of humanity lies not so much in the hands of politicians, economists or religious leaders, but in the knowledge that we gain about the world through science.”

This he contends has never been more true, as we face the 21st century challenges of pandemics, climate change, and global poverty. Meanwhile, we continue to develop “wondrous technologies” that will help us to explore both space and artificial intelligence. The full benefit of humanity’s relationship with science, says Al-Khalili, can only be realised if politicians “pull back from the all-too-prevalent current attitudes of isolationism and nationalism.”

To live in a better world – one informed by rationalism, opportunity, and discovery – we all need to think more like scientists, and we’d all be a lot happier if we did, says Al-Khalili. While mysteries are to be embraced, they are also there to be solved. If you don’t understand something, it doesn’t follow that you never will. You won’t reach a clearer understanding of what’s going on by valuing opinion over evidence. You need to recognise your own bias before judging other outlooks, while not being afraid to change your mind. These are the central tenets and philosophies of science, as well as the author. These issues are also the core subjects of the suite of essays that make up ‘The Joy of Science’.

There are four reasons for thinking scientifically, says Al-Khalili. The first is that the scientific method is a reliable way of looking at the world. Second is that there are plenty of reasons to support the notion that it works. Third – essentially the theme of the book – is that it benefits everybody in their everyday lives. Finally, like the rainbow, it is incomplete and yet enriches us. Life-affirming, thoughtful, and highly readable.

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