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By (September 1, 2007) No Comment

Present at the Future

Ira Flatow
Collins, 2007


Longtime science journalist and host of NPR’s “Science Friday,” Ira Flatow, has collected 350 pages of his investigations into the various realms of scientific esoterica. The book is called Present at the Future, and it’s dragging around the standard engorged tapeworm of a subtitle: “From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature.” In it, Flatow serves as our guide to realms of fact and speculation few would care to navigate on their own.

Science popularizers have always faced a tricky task: on the one hand, it would be counterproductive (and, in the case of journalists, laughably unbelievable) to sound like an actual expert on your subject. On the other hand, some scientific subjects can only be reduced in complexity so far before they become essentially meaningless. The popularizer must straddle that divide, distilling the most complex data in the world into tame little homilies that insult neither their recipients nor the data itself.

It’s a tricky job, yet it’s never lacked for applicants. Flatow works in a long and honorable tradition, one that could be said to have had its beginning in the thundering oratory of Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ and one that can boast a roster that includes such giants as Theodore Roosevelt, William Beebe, Roger Tory Peterson, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Timothy Ferris, and the greatest of them all, James Burke, whose book (and absolutely luminous BBC mini-series) “Connections” is the single best example of the sub-genre yet produced.

Flatow has much to recommend him to that company. His prose is slangy and approachable, which can be invaluable when he’s trying to break down terrifyingly complex hard science; his viewpoint is entirely balanced, without the slightest trace of hidden agendas. And his approach is bracingly ecumenical—the average lay reader will very much enjoy the sheer breadth of subjects touched on in this book, an even partial listing of which would include memory, brain chemistry, global warming, cosmology, dark matter, string theory, addiction, aerodynamics, computer science, evolution, creationism, oceanography, and nanotechnology.

Such a list hints at the added complications faced by a science popularizer at the dawn of the 21st century: there’s so much more to explain. If you wanted to write a book like Present at the Future in 1911, your task wouldn’t be appreciably different than if you tried it in 1811—true, in the later book a few advances in fields like biochemistry or photography could be mentioned in passing as innovations of little likely importance, but the bulk of both books would be concerned with the solar system, Linnean classification, geography, Galileo, Newton—science’s usual suspects, as it were.

Not so now. The merest glance at the science section of any major newspaper (or the clicking of any of the innumerable such pages online, furthering the irony and the alarm) reveals wonders and marvels in a profusion and a complexity with which no previous generation of mankind has had to grapple. Assumptions held for centuries wobble like channel buoys, and each startling new discovery follows hard on the last. It’s an atmosphere fit to make most science journalists take up needlework.

And it’s complicated by one further circumstance, which no courteous popularizer will mention: the target audience is getting dumber. Educational standards and performance rates are in steady decline in the United States, with the result that what was once without irony referred to as “the informed public” now reaches adulthood woefully ignorant (“underfacted,” as one government-sponsored study put it, aptly, harrowingly demonstrating the problem) of such subjects as history, grammar, art, politics, civics, literature, poetry, deportment, and just generally anything that doesn’t have a direct (i.e., monetary) impact on their personal leisure time.

The list is headed by science, of course. Most members of “the informed public” couldn’t name all the planets in the solar system (with or without recent defrockments), couldn’t name the chemical process that produces the oxygen they breathe, couldn’t tell you the difference between a virus and a bacterium, or any of a dozen other questions any 6-year-old in Tokyo could answer. And like any pampered, narcissistic, undertaught populace, Americans dislike having their ignorance pointed out to them, even when it’s done gently and with a sense of humor. Their reaction to such an attempt is likely to be some combination of anger and dismissal. Any combination of anger and dismissal is bad news for an author looking to sell some books. So science popularizers today have to tread far more warily than their predecessors.

Flatow has been at it for nearly 35 years, and he’s honed a technique that is, at times, downright eerie in its effectiveness. He’s writing for children (on some level, he must know this), but he’s writing for children who to the last individual don’t think they’re children; imagine trying to write an actual kids book that way—the task is maddening, well nigh impossible. And yet, there’s Flatow, pulling it off for page after page. One hardly knows whether to applaud or cry. Either the American public can be truly educated and Flatow isn’t willing to try, or they can’t be and he isn’t willing to admit it. Either way, somewhere there’s a funeral going on.

Meanwhile, back in Present at the Future, every effort has been made to keep the reader comfortable, even as they’re being fed large amounts of information. The chapters are wispishly short, and even that truncated length is broken up into sub-sections sometimes no more than a few paragraphs long. These sub-sections (practiced and patient readers of genuine prose will find them fatally off-putting) have titles of their own, and a vast number of those titles are designed to reassure anybody who might be feeling overwhelmed: ‘Cutting Edge,’’Sex on the Brain,’ ‘Senior Moments,’ ‘This is Your Brain on Drugs,’ ‘Not Your Father’s Telescope,’ ‘Thinking Outside the Box,’ ‘Voting Their Conscience,’ ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘The French Connection,’ ‘Follow the Money,’ ‘There’s No Business Like Space Business,’ ‘Strike up the Bandwidth’ … clichés like this constitute a constant background hum throughout the book, and although their origin is almost certainly plain old lazy writing, their familiarity will doubtless appeal to readers feeling a little lost (they’ll also date like rare cheese, which will make large chunks of this book incomprehensible to readers even ten years from now, when they read about it over in Absent Friends).

But it’s really Flatow’s aforementioned tone that will set such readers at ease. The average business commuter should feel deeply, personally insulted by a passage like the following, but because of Flatow’s skill at this unholy type of writing, that commuter is far more likely to smile a little and feel somehow included:

Our restaurants and supermarkets have been typically filled with food fish—such as tuna and swordfish—which are very large and grow rapidly. So when we hunt and capture them from the sea, they feed a lot of people and reproduce and grow quickly. But overfishing—and our taste for sushi—has depleted the stocks of those fish, leaving us with others that do not grow back so quickly. Take the newly popular orange roughy. That fish on your plate make take 30 years to mature and may actually be 100 years old! Imagine how long it will take to replace that entree!

The text has no cartoon image of a frowning orange roughy after this passage, but the hyper-text no doubt has.

Part of Flatow’s secret here is a carefully cultivated aura of innocence. He’s a writer who’s unafraid to sprinkle his text with ‘wow’s and exclamation points, and his depiction of sudden moments of understanding, although anatomically perilous to duplicate, is clearly geared for the “guileless wonder” market demographic:

One of the joys of being a science writer is the “aha!” moment. That brilliant flash of light, that moment of epiphany, when all the cylinders in your head click and you come to understand something you had never understood before. Sometimes your mouth may actually fall open as your eyes wander around the room, not really seeing anything but not under the conscious control of your brain, which has just latched onto an idea that had eluded it for quite some time.

This innocent demeanor—affectation or not—plus his reputation over the years, lowers the defenses of the many scientists and specialists Flatow has interviewed over the years, and the resultant flood of candor is one of the book’s main strengths. Flatow projects the earnest desire to make the forbidding complexities of modern science understandable to everybody, and there are few scientists who aren’t simultaneously flattered and encouraged by such a goal. They all talk to Flatow, and he willingly yields the floor—something popularizers who are also scientists often have trouble doing (such accommodation was a problem for Stephen Jay Gould, and frothing egomaniacs like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett have never even tried it) Flatow’s willingness to do this can cause minor discordances, of course, like the point at which he says that ‘about one quarter’ of the Netherlands is below sea level only to quote an expert four lines later who says it’s ‘sixty percent.’

The fact that such a discrepancy wasn’t caught by the book’s editors is sadly typical of Present at the Future, which suffers from a remarkably sloppy execution. Typographical errors abound (most commonly periods where commas should be, which made an already choppy reading experience much worse), quotes are poorly formatted, and so on. Part of the problem must be laid at Flatow’s door, however, since the single most jarring physical feature of the text is its openly fragmentary format. Not only are all those innumerable textual interruptions not necessary (an audience that can’t handle three consecutive pages of prose can’t handle dark matter and multiple dimensions, no matter how much you dumb things down), but hardly any effort was made to make the book feel like a textual whole. Instead, it hits its big subjects, follows that with a few little swipes at fun straw man topics like what makes planes fly, and then simply stops—no summary, no afterword, no pulling of anything together. True, the book’s introduction covers some of that territory, but then it’s never mentioned again. The effect is to make the book feel rushed and incomplete, like a mere transcript of radio broadcasts.

  (Deeper philosophical problems surface only occasionally, as with offhand mentions of experiments done on “lab animals”—as though such a species existed in the wild, as opposed to being created by human cruelty, or a somewhat dismissive reference to Brazil’s ravaging of its rain forests to fuel its cars, but the reader never suspects Flatow himself of being devious or heartless—rather, at most, he’s a mirror held up to devious and heartless times.)

It should come as no surprise that the book’s highlights, therefore, are the chunks that feel longer, more cohesive, more considered. These occur toward the end of Present at the Future, when Flatow writes up interviews he had with cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut, Apple computer pioneer Steve Wozniak, and anthropology pioneer Jane Goodall. These segments are still bedeviled by those idiotic sub-chapter interruptions, but they’re fewer in number, and they’re compensated for by the fact that Flatow is, not surprisingly, an interesting and sensitive interviewer. The highlight of these sections is the Goodall interview, during which, among many other wonderful moments, Flatow prompts her to talk about the chilly reception she got at Cambridge University, many students of which had learned of her unconventional habit of giving names to the chimpanzees she’d been studying in Africa:

I mean, I couldn’t talk about their personalities, these vivid personalities that I by then was beginning to know. I certainly couldn’t talk about them being capable of rational thought, which they clearly were. And finally, worst sin of all was that I was ascribing to them emotions, like happiness, sadness, and so forth. But more importantly perhaps, all through my childhood, I had this wonderful teacher, and that was my dog Rusty. So I knew that animals had personalities, minds, and feelings …

The patient, kindly listening mind that could elicit such delightfully candid talk is everywhere in Present at the Future, walking the reader from one tangled subject to another, from global warming to ethanol conversion to the 2004 Dover School Board creationism trial in Pennsylvania, and through it all maintaining a sunny disposition and chummy sense of humor. The scientists Flatow interviews unwittingly combine to describe a world—indeed, a universe—beset by subatomic monsters and awash in massive, uncontrollable forces of nature. Readers of Flatow’s book can breathe easy and pull up a chair, however: their author has some wonderful stories to tell them about all of it.

Steve Donoghue trained as a fighter pilot during the Great War, though, unfortunately, the Armistice was proclaimed before he could fly in any sorties. Under the impression that there would be no more world wars, he turned to writing and today hosts the literary blog www.stevereads.blogspot.com

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