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Black Hole

The Books They Read

By Cathryn Crane

A truly good book is something as wildly natural and primitive, mysterious and marvellous, ambrosial and fertile as a fungus or a lichen.

Henry David Thoreau

There's something strange about the sort of books scientists read. You don't often find them in bookshops and they don't usually appear on the bestseller lists.

They drown among the mountains of material on crystals, perpetual motion machines and UFO sightings. They lurk in the catalogue listings of DSIR divisions and institute newsletters. They leer from the bottom shelves of second-hand bookshops and sit forlornly on the bookstall trestles at school fairs.

Small wonder really. Most people would find a tome on wetas less than gripping, but the DSIR has one available. Maps of skink and frog populations won't push Wilbur Smith from his pinnacle of literary achievement. But you can get such an atlas from the Department of Conservation. Even king crabs have their own published bibliography with 3,850 entries on everything you ever wanted to know about Paralithodes camtschaticus.

Mathematics or computer texts tend to be even more intimidating. A page of calculations or a program listing can make even the bravest hearts quail. According to publishers, they knock a significant proportion from the sales -- 10% for every formula. Perhaps the most tedious science "book" is the 400-page volume listing the value of pi to a million decimal places.

Yet not all science books are dry scholarly treatments devoid of humour or life. Some have more plot and characterisation than many a popular novel. Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History -- the Biography of a Bacillus is a case in point. There's something intriguing about a chapter on typhus entitled "In which we follow the earliest epidemic exploits of our disease".

Some of the bloodiest battles in print have been waged in the pages of scientific treatises, complete with abusive footnotes and damning references. Character assassination is not solely the province of political writers or Hollywood biographers.

In one of the earliest examples of corporate disclaimers, a Lutheran minister added an unauthorised preface to Copernicus' classic on the heliocentric nature of the solar system. It said that the theory was only to facilitate calculations of planetary tables and had no bearing on how the solar system was actually run. No-one complained about the addition until 66 years later.

New discoveries appear in science journals long before they grace the pages of the popular press, but even respected publications make mistakes from time to time. The first scientific report on the Wright brothers' flight at Kittyhawk appeared in Gleanings in Bee Culture. Apiarist A I Root had originally submitted the story to Scientific American. They rejected it.

Cathryn Crane is a print addict who, in moments of desperation, has been known to read the backs of breakfast cereal packets.