Saturday, November 6, 2010

Last book standing

Near the end of "Great science writing II: Building the big book" session, Robert Lee Hotz presented the panelists with a thought experiment. It was an update / modern cousin of the classic scenario: If your house is burning and you can grab one book from your bookshelf, what would it be? (Though in Hotz's setup, all books had been digitized and physical books were all but nonexistent. Then one day, he says, the power went out and all those e-books were lost. Which single book do you still have? Hotz's setup adds another dimension--it's not just your house that was destroyed, but all books ever published in history.)

Carl Zimmer said On the Origin of Species. Jennifer Ouellette followed with Newton's Principia. Charles Seife thought for a moment and offered up the Bible. Jonathan Weiner saved The Way Things Are by Lucretius ("He's already survived at least one apocalypse," Weiner added) and K. C. Cole said she wouldn't let go of the Bose-Einstein Letters.

These answers followed a revealing session in which each author personified one particular aspect of writing a book about science. Hearing writers dig into their own methods and present their experiences in light of these aspects was a novel and useful way to hear about the process, not necessarily exclusive to books. Many of their comments, reflections and experiences speak to more universal themes. Figure out when you write, find the best voice for your piece, be deliberate about structure. Each writer has to figure out how to make it work.

This session was a nice follow-up to the one last night at the Beinecke Library, in which some of these writers read from their works.

How about the rest of us? What single book about science would you grab from your shelf? I'm still chewing on that question, but The Elements keeps popping into my mind.

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