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The Science of Discworld
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
Ebury Press, 336 pages

The Science of Discworld
Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett lives in Somerset, England, where he spends all his time, and more, writing his rigorously naturalistic, curiously entertaining, shamelessly popular Discworld novels which have earned him extravagant acclaim and puzzled stares from millions of readers around the world.

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A review by Steven H Silver

The Science of Discworld is one of those wonderful ideas that you know is going to work out extremely well. Terry Pratchett would write a novella about the wizards of Unseen University creating a strange universe in which planets coalesce into strange spheres. As they view the results of their experiment, two scientists, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, would explain the real world science the wizards were experiencing.

Unfortunately, as with many can't-miss ideas, this one missed. Pratchett's story is broken into twenty-odd chapters, many of them only a couple of pages in length. By the time there is any action, the reader is dropped out of the story for Stewart and Cohen to explain the scientific principles. Even when the book is read by skipping the scientific explanations, Pratchett's story, while amusing, still reads as if it were written specifically so the scientists could provide explanations.

Those looking for a Terry Pratchett Discworld book will be further disillusioned to discover that the vast majority of the book is taken up by the explanatory chapters. While this should be good news to the reader who wants to get a basis in science, the format of the science chapters also causes problems.

Stewart and Cohen have attempted to match Pratchett's cleverness in their own chapters, which would have been fine, except they frequently allow their cleverness to get in the way of their explanations. Furthermore, the total absence of any formulae or diagrams in the book only inhibits a clear and full understanding of some of the concepts which they are trying to get across to the reader.

One of Stewart and Cohen's strengths lie in their ability to make broad scientific concepts clear, although they generally don't go into any depth at all. Their explanations are good introductions for someone with little or no scientific knowledge. However, the reader who already has some understanding of any of the topics they cover will find many of their chapters rudimentary. Nevertheless, they do cover a very broad spectrum, ranging from nuclear physics to the life sciences to cosmogony.

Their other strength lies in their ability to cover the history of scientific inquiry, possibly even better than they present the concepts of science. For each of the topics they cover, the authors also give the background of the field to make sure the reader understands where the theories came from and what theories they supplanted. More importantly, these sections make it clear that the accepted theories of today may be disproved tomorrow and that scientists can be as dogmatic as anybody else.

While The Science of Discworld does not do an exceptional job of explaining science, it does provide an introduction, which would have been more useful with a short bibliography for each of the scientific chapters to point the reader to other sources of more detailed (but still introductory) information. The Pratchett chapters tell an amusing, but not laugh-out-loud story of the wizards which will be welcome for fans of Rincewind and the faculty (including an appearance by Rincewind's long suffering Luggage).

Copyright © 1999 by Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He sits on concoms for Windycon, Chicon 2000 and Clavius in 2001 and is co-chair of Picnicon 1998. Steven will be serving as the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. He lives at home with his wife and 3200 books. He is available for convention panels.

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