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The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

Richard Dawkins
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
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"Modern" is defined here as "within the past one hundred years" and "science writing" as "writing by scientists" rather than "writings about science". This is a collection of about 80 short excerpts, mostly from scholarly books but also from some popular works and magazines. There's a piece by Martin Gardner (about Conway's Game of Life), although strictly speaking Gardner is not a scientist.

With this many selections, each one gets about four pages on average, and I thought in most cases this was too short. You don't really get a good feel for the writer in that space, or a good appreciation of what the problem is about. In general the longer pieces were the most successful. An exception is a two-page selection from Richard Feynman's The Character of Physical Law; Feynman's style is so distinctive it comes through even in this short space.

The selection is slanted somewhat towards the biological sciences, which is understandable because the editor is a biologist, but also because biology is where most of the scientific excitement has been since the 1950s. I thought physics was shortchanged. There was very little mention of quantum theory, which along with relativity was where most of the excitement was in science before 1950.

What you'll like in this collection depends on your tastes, but these are what I thought were the standout pieces:

  • Garrett Hardin from "The Tragedy of the Commons" (I had always imagined this concept went back to the 1700s or so, but it first appeared in 1968)
  • J. B. S. Haldane from "On Being the Right Size" (all about the square-cube law, with lots of well-chosen examples)
  • Stephen Jay Gould, "Worm for a Century, and for all Seasons" (a piece that really is representative of the writer's work, perhaps because it got twelve pages instead of the average four)

The book includes a thorough index, very unusual for an anthology but much appreciated.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist, library propagandist, and retired computer programmer. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis.


Part I: The Natural World 
Part II: Science and Scientists 
Part III: Concepts 
Part IV: Truth, Beauty, Imagination