Friday, 25 February 2005

The Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations – W. F. Bynum & Roy Porter *****

This is a wonderful book.
My immediate reaction to my enthusiasm is concern. How sad is that, to be excited by a dictionary? But to be fair, this reviewer is a science writer, so in getting excited about the ODSQ I’m merely praising a superb tool of the trade.
The fact remains, this is one of the few dictionaries I’ve felt a strong urge to sit down and read through from cover to cover. Of course, dictionaries of quotations are much more fun than the boring old definition variety, but somehow there’s something very special about a collection of science quotes.
The sources are the expected ones, a mix of scientists and less obvious people talking about science (John Donne’s in there, for instance). The purist might argue that the chunks given to the ancient Greeks and the like are stretching a point, because they were talking about philosophy rather than science – but that’s a silly and unnecessary distinction. The book falls into the usual Oxford quotations format, arranged by author in alphabetical order, but with a large cross-referencing index at the back, so you can find appropriate quotes on the subject of your choice.
If you suspect it’s going to be all dry and heavy – think again. Of course there are the portentous remarks, but there’s plenty of lightness too. Take this snippet from a quotation from Alexander Todd, when attempting to get some cigarettes at the bar of a wartime defence establishment. Todd was asked his rank by the barman. “I am afraid I haven’t got one,” I answered.
“Nonsense – everyone who comes in here has a rank.”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t have one.”
“Now that puts me in a spot,” said the barman, “for orders about cigarettes in this camp are clear – 20 for officers and ten for other ranks. Tell me what exactly are you?”
Now I really wanted those cigarettes so I drew myself up and said “I am the Professor of Chemistry at Manchester University.”
The barman contemplated me for about thirty seconds and then said “I’ll give you five.”
As the late lamented Stanley Unwin would have said, deep joy. Rush don’t walk to the bookstore and get it.
Review by Brian Clegg