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A Review of: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

A review by Jerry A. Coyne

Richard Dawkins’s new collection of delectable prose, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, is less an anthology of set pieces than a treasury: a series of short titbits designed to pique the reader’s appetite, helping him to decide which science writers to investigate more deeply. It enables you to sample eighty-three selections by seventy-nine writers – physicists, geologists, mathematicians, chemists and, of course, evolutionary biologists. Unlike its main competitor, the estimable Faber Book of Science (2005), this collection confines itself to writing by scientists rather than journalists, is limited to works produced after 1900, has shorter pieces (an average of four pages each), and, with the exception of Primo Levi’s famous essay on carbon, presents only material composed in English.

Dawkins stays pretty much behind the curtain here, limiting his own glosses to a one-page general introduction and a short but informative preface to each piece (he modestly omits his own published work). Nevertheless, his eye is impeccable. You’ll find all your old favourites—Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones, Steven Pinker, Lewis Wolpert and Oliver Sacks. Within each oeuvre the choice is equally judicious. Among all of Gould’s wonderful essays, for example,

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