The Science of Discworld

I think it’s fairly well established that the recently-late Terry Pratchett was a genius.  A smart, remarkable, cheeky, intelligent, passionate man, he was prolific in his creation, publishing 40 books in the Discworld series alone.  With whatever he writes there seems to be quite a serious twinkle in his eye, and it is in this spirit The Science of Discworld has been created.  How wonderful, how interesting, how fascinating our world is, what bloody fun to tell its story with a Discworld plot woven throughout.

First up, we should be clear on this: The Science of Discworld is not a book explaining the imaginary magic science behind Pratchett’s series.  It is a collaboration with Ian Stewart (mathematician) and Jack Cohen (biologist) to tell the story of our universe, our planet, and life.  It’s a pretty wonderful way to get a whole lot of history, science, and smarts.

Chapters are alternated, between a Discworld narrative in the Unseen University, and an accompanying explanatory chapter, analysing the science the wizards, against their best efforts, have stumbled across.  Perhaps irritatingly bumbling and deliberately ignorant, the wizards have to harness the excess magic power currently being captured in the squash court.  Roundworld – a stand in for the earth – in an infinite space – our universe – is created.  The wizards poke it and prod it a bit, and get rather despondent and sulky when meteors, ice ages and other intelligent-life-destroying things keep happening.

Difference is used as a way to draw attention to basic elements of fact and science to our attention: the world is round, not flat (like Discworld, carried on the backs of four elephants riding a giant turtle through space), there is no magic, no narrativium driving life.  And before we are told the facts of our world, the way we are taught is first deconstructed.  Very lightly, we are told about the quite serious concept of lies-to-children, which essentially consenually runs our society.  Prepare yourself for the destruction of a lot of the ideas you hold about the universe and life itself.

Universities are very familiar with bright, qualified school-leavers who arrive and then go into shock on finding that biology or physics isn’t quite what they’ve been taught so far.  ‘Yes, but you needed to understand that,’ they are told, ‘so that now we can tell you why it isn’t exactly true.’  Discworld teachers know this, and use it to demonstrate why universities are truly storehouses of knowledge: students arrive from school, confident that they know very nearly everything, and they leave years later certain that they know practically nothing.  Where did the knowledge go in the meantime?  Into the university, of course, where it is carefully dried and stored.

I, for one, had a lot of my fond childhood memories about dinosaurs completely and utterly destroyed in a single chapter.  Interesting but gut-wrenching.  But other, fascinating, wonderful ideas about space elevators, how we are taught about the environment, how science works, just what happened with the big bang, are dealt with.  And really, things can get a little philosophical at times: as HEX, the intelligent supercomputer helping run Roundworld says, “++ In the Absence of Duration And Dimension, There Must Be Potentiality. +++”

And in this completely educated totally informed super casual tone, you are taught so much, without even realising perhaps.  Very serious concepts are relayed with such humour and passion, so much is covered.  Of course Stewart, Cohen and Pratchett realised while writing this book that there was far too much going on to cover it all in a single, rather long, book, and The Science of Discworld turned into a series.

This book focuses on what they think is important, not what we are often told are important.  And it really give you a sense of perspective about humanity, our impact on the world and the universe, our relevance in time, in that the wizards entirely missed humanity’s rise and fall while all out to lunch one day.

I feel like I was accidentally taught a whole lot about the universe while reading this book.  Not just factoids, but new ways of thinking, challenging philosophies, examinations of the way we think.  Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen clearly delight in incidentally imparting just a part of their vast knowledge, and you even get a little bit of a Discworld story thrown in for good measure too.

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