Preface to book

January 17, 2008

Here is a description of the goals of a book that strives to make science comprehensible and accessible to those not specialized in science. It looks at how science works, using evolution as a model of how scientific questions become relevant, how the questions are phrased, and how they are answered. This is the preface to The Joy of Science (2007). More information is available at Sample material will be available at this site shortly.


Scientists have great passion. What could be more exhilarating than to go to work every day feeling as if you were once again a nine-year-old called up to the stage to help the magician with his trick? To be a researcher is to always be in the position of having the chance to see how the trick works.  No wonder that many researchers feel that each new day is the most exciting day to be a scientist.

It therefore is not surprising that scientists have such trouble communicating with non-scientists. It is difficult for the scientist to understand a life not focused on the desire to understand. But the differences are not that. Everyone wants to understand; that is one of the factors that make us human. The difference is more that scientists limit their definition of comprehension to specific rules of logic and evidence. These rules apply and are used in everyday life, but often with less rigor or restrictions on evidence.

The structure of this book is therefore tripartite. On the first level, we wish to demonstrate that, far from being arcane or inaccessible, the scientific approach is simply a variant of normal, common experience and judgment, easily accessible to any educated person. The second goal is to explain the structure of scientific thinking, which we will describe as the requirement for evidence, logic, and falsification (experimental testing). The third goal is to illustrate the scientific method by looking at the story of the development of the idea of evolution.

Evolution is a branch of scientific inquiry that is distinguished by its minimal level of laboratory experimentation, as least in its early period. Nevertheless, the story of evolution seems for several reasons to be an excellent choice to examine the nature of scientific inquiry. First, it is, almost without doubt, the most important idea of the 19th and 20th centuries. Second, it is often misunderstood. Third, understanding the story does not require an extensive technical background. Finally, it is very multidisciplinary.

This latter point may be confusing to some – what do Einstein’s Theory of relativity, X-rays of molecules, or the physics of flight have to do with evolution? But all knowledge is interconnected, and the best science (and the best ideas generally) come when thoughts range across disciplines. If you are unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable with, this approach, try it! It is much easier than you think, and making the connection between history and biology, or between any two disciplines, makes our understanding of both much richer and deeper. Furthermore,  the facts will make more sense and be easier to remember. If you understand, you don’t have to memorize, because the facts will be obvious. This is why the questions at the ends of the chapters are essay style. Isolated facts are the basis for a trivia contest, while connected facts are the gateways to understanding.

Finally, for those concerned about using this book for teaching or learning within the confines of a course: all knowledge is connected, and it would be possible in taking a topic as global as evolution to expand into every realm of science and theology. I have found it useful in my teaching to allow the curiosity of students to redefine the directions I take, and the book reflects some of these directions. It is not necessary to address evolution through an excursion into molecular biology, but molecular biology is relevant, interesting, and currently in the headlines. I therefore have included excursions such as these into the text, but I highly encourage teachers and others planning a course to omit these excursions, as they see fit, or to use them as supplementary materials. I have also included several comments on the relationship of history and culture to the development of science. Since the book is written for those who do not intend to major in sciences, these comments should help these students to connect the various trains of developing thought and culture to the growing science as well as providing launchpads for teachers more comfortable with these subjects.

It is possible to use this book for a one-semester or two-semester course. Each of the chapters may be treated briefly or in more detail—for instance, in developing the story of quantitation and statistics in Chapter 32 or following in greater or lesser detail the excursion into molecular biology in Chapters 14–16. It will also be possible to spend more time on such issues as the distinction among the various historical eras, the modern classification of animals and plants, or the relationship between ecology and evolution. If possible, it would be best to use this book in the setting of small classes in which discussion is encouraged.

For further resources, more technical sources and interesting web pages are listed at the end of most chapters. Of course, nothing beats reading Darwin’s original books, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and Voyage of the Beagle, or any of several books and essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Ernst Mayr, or other more recent giants of the field. A more popular summary, written by a science reporter, is Carl Zimmer’s Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Harper Collins, 2001. It was written in conjunction with a PBS series on Evolution, which is likewise available from the Public Broadcasting System ( Some of the references that you will find in this book are to Wikipedia They are used because they are readily accessible–the function of Wikipedia. However, readers should appreciate that most articles are written by graduate students, who may have good understanding but rarely a historical perspective, and the articles are usually not written by established authorities. Most of the articles, however, contain appended references that are generally reliable.

Finally, there are of course many people to whom I am indebted for assistance in the preparation of this book. Many readers will recognize my indebtedness to many excellent writers in this field such as Steven Jay Gould (several writings, but especially The Mismeasurement of Man) and Jared Diamond (Guns,Germs, and Steel and Collapse). I attempt to summarize some of their arguments. Hopefully, readers will be encouraged to read the more voluminous but exciting and challenging full works. In addition to the many teachers and lecturers from whom I have profited at all stages of my career and the administrators at St. John’s University who encouraged and supported the development of the course from which this book is derived. Among the friends who have read and commented—with excellent suggestions—on various sections and drafts, and offered many worthwhile books and readings, I count (in alphabetical order) Mitchell Baker, Dan Brovey, Andrew Greller, and Michael Lockshin. My colleague, friend, and wife, Zahra Zakeri, has offered many cogent criticisms and, of course, has been most helpful and tolerant of my endless searches, writings, and musings. None of these has any responsibility for any weaknesses, errors, or other problems.