What was the publisher thinking of? Dead set, this book is actually called Incoming!: Or, why we should stop worrying and learn to love the meteorite. Maybe Hoyle was right, maybe we are ruled by extra-terrestrial sentient cockroaches and this is their idea of a joke.
The thing that is so monumentally unfair about this title is that the book is terrific, but who’d guess? Who’d give a book a chance having laboured through that dreadful, dreadful title?
One could be picky with the style and content. It was not love at first sight for me, but it warms up, and quickly at that. I guess it is hard for pop science writers to ignore the Bill Bryson effect. Me, I last saw my copy of A Brief History mid air over the desert between Adelaide and Melbourne. I fell asleep without even opening it, having stuffed it in the slot in front of me, and didn’t think to recover it upon landing. I’d got about half way through over the previous weeks and evidently at some unconscious level I’d decided I’d had enough of Bryson’s very repetitive style of jocularity. Nield doesn’t do that style as well as Bryson, so the early pages could have signalled a very tedious read indeed, but the difference between the two quickly becomes apparent. Bryson thinks everything is really really interesting. He is not only entirely without discrimination, but he writes from a position of ignorance. Nield, on the other hand, has intimate knowledge and fondness of his limited subject. The contrast could not be greater. Because Nield is completely engaged in his subject, so too are we, his readers.
This book works on two levels. Firstly it explains the history of the science of the meteorite in a way that will make the least scientifically inclined reader stay awake, pay attention, and learn something. Secondly it explains the sociology of the science equally accessibly. Nield provides a really nice case study of how science works, a major theme being that what we see is predicated upon belief. He sets the tone for that early, beginning with this from a scientist:
In order to see things, it is necessary to believe them possible
and this from a poet:
Some things have to be believed to be seen
He gives the historical examples that have subsequently been resolved, including in Western history, the very idea of the meteorite, which was not accepted by science until educated people happened to be eye-witnesses. As we move to the present he discusses the fascinating case of Keller’s work which has caused such controversy and is an open-ended example of the process he gives examples of throughout the book.
Finally, he gives insight into the differences between physics and its hunt for laws, and other sciences:
…although the process of nucleosynthesis proceeds inexorably by the laws of physics, most other processes such as biological and geological evolution, are the product of historical events that cannot have been foreseen and might not necessarily have happened in the way they did. The state of things now is contingent upon what happened in the past, and while it might be hard to imagine things otherwise, the sense of inevitability that they give us is almost entirely illusory.
This is an important part of the story, as he discusses the impact of the physicist Alvarez upon our understanding in the area.
There are so many ways in which one can gain insight into the world from reading this book that I can’t recommend it highly enough. At least four stars.