The fascinating art of science

John Barrow is a distinguished scientist and a distinguished ­communicator about science. He is equally at home conducting technical research in cosmology and giving lucid explanations for the layman of the universe’s dizzying complexities.In this remarkable book Dr Barrow shows that images have played, and increasingly play, a significant part in the advancement of science. It is true that a great deal of science requires a very different kind of representation from what, as a largely visual species, we are used to, for at its most technical it requires mathematics to express it properly.

But in an age of PowerPoint, television, “special effects” and science fiction, the place of images in scientific enquiry and education takes on an added interest.

The fact is that much science has been prompted or promoted by images, indeed, sometimes there has been no other way to capture a scientific idea adequately. The result is that science possesses a rich heritage of imagery which, put together and annotated as it is here by Dr Barrow, is instructive and revealing.

Dr Barrow has ranged widely to illustrate this point, in both senses of “illustrate”. Spectacular pictures of supernovae, the preserved foot-prints of hominids who lived one and a half million years ago, beautiful botanical and zoological paintings, fractals, graphs, tables, schematic molecule rings, Venn diagrams, star maps, microscope slides of astonishing and intricate structures, tracks in bubble chambers—the list goes on, and as one pages through so the accompanying explanatory text demands to be read, with instruction as the satisfying result.

The book is a selection, not a catalogue, and it is a personal selection, in the good sense that Dr Barrow’s choices reflect his scientific interests as well as his aesthetic preferences. The advantage of this is that his accompanying text serves the illustrations particularly well. He is interested in some images because they helped to shape a scientific advance; he is interested in other images because of the people who created them; he is interested in yet others because they explain their subject matter really well. But in every case his interest is engaged, and therefore he engages our interest in response.

There is as much to enjoy as to learn here, and it is a safe bet that not a few artists browsing its pages will find in them something even more than enjoyment and instruction: inspiration.

A.C. Grayling, Birkbeck College, University of London

John D. Barrow, Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science (Bodley Head), 608 pp, £25 (hb) ISBN 9780224075237

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