A dull review

There’s a new book by Alan Lightman out, titled Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. Irrespective of others’ appreciation of it, I expect to find the book preposterously dull if Michael Shermer’s review in the Times is anything to go by. “Does a scientific understanding of the world erase its emotional impact or spiritual power? Of course not.” ––thanks Mr Shermer, we were waiting for you on that.

For starters, I’d have thought we were way past casting the ‘science v. spirituality’ face-off as novel or, more misguidedly, as something to bait the casual reader with. In the latter case, the more well-read among us must brace for one of only two possible outcomes: a bird’s-eye review of the topic or a restatement of its essential animus in new words (a task for which Lightman is particularly suited). If it is a bird’s-eye review, then the book deserves to be judged as one of science, or science communication. But if it’s going to be old wine in new bottle – which a critic of Shermer’s standing should surely be able to sniff out – then the book must be judged solely for its quality of prose. His review is convincing on neither count, however.

Last: Musings on the subjectivity of science are always welcome; where I find the slip-up often happens is when people other than the authors claim the book is something it is not, and in this regard Shermer seems particularly suspicious. The giveaway is (always) simple to locate: what the reviewer claims to find interesting enough about a book to want to include it in the review or, better yet, cast the review such that it invokes the best parts of the book.

Given that there is a vague paragraph, something about “absolutes”, and another about science itself being like faith with a lazy allusion to some Einsteinian opinion, and some hilarious circumambulation of the captivating nuance these POVs have been known to offer, all ultimately glued together with quotes from Sagan and Feynman… isn’t this as monotonous, and as mainstream, as it can get?