Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Armless Enough Read

Dropped by Silverfish to see what gossip I could glean, and saw on the counter The Missing Arms of Venus de Milo: Reflections on the Science of Attractiveness.

Now I'm a sucker for books about evolutionary biology especially when difficult subject matter is enjoyably readable for a lay audience, so I was pretty interested. Then I realised that the name of the author seemed familiar ... and then it clicked, Viren Swami's short story The Monkey of the Inkpot was included in Silverfish New Writing 6. How great to have a very interesting popular science book written by a Malaysian author and published in the UK (by independent publisher Book Guild)! I hesitated about buying it because it was RM120 which seems a bit ouchy (although this is in fact a close ringgit equivalent to the £16.99 UK price). I hope that a paperback version is in the pipeline. (Can see I'm rapidly talking myself into going back for a copy ...)

I lifted this blurb from the Silverfish website:
We are constantly told that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But what if, just as our lives are governed by universal physical laws, the notion of beauty could be reduced to a system of immutable facts? Could there be one universal concept of beauty by which we are all measured? In Viren Swami's intriguing investigation into the science of attractiveness, the author sets out to deconstruct the myths and uncover some of the truths about beauty. Taking the Venus de Milo as his constant companion, Swami embarks on a fascinating journey through historical, cultural, economic and social contexts of this age old debate. On his way he encounters an impressive gallery of advocates and adversaries: from Plato to Michelangelo, from Rubens to Manet, from Darwin to Stephan Jay Gould; Shakespeare to Naomi Wolf. The definitive guide to psychologists, art historians and philosophers of science, this highly accessible and wide ranging exploration is also an indispensable introduction for any of us who has ever wondered what constitutes the body beautiful.
Viren Swami is currently living in London. He is a Research Associate at the University of Liverpool, UK. He received his doctorate from University College London, where he specialized in evolutionary psychology. His current research interests include interpersonal attraction, especially across cultures, and gender studies. He has also written (with Adrian Furnham) The Psychology of Physical Attraction, as well as numerous psychological studies.

He has also translated George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia into Bahasa Malaysia and is currently translating Kafka's Metamorphosis. How nice to see a scientist bridging the literary divide.


nel said...

While reading the blub, I do love those words but I do question when a writer try to mix science with beautiful words. I am not saying it's wrong, but only questioning ... :)

lil ms d said...

i thikn another writer wrote on this topic. john armstrong? the power of beauty? i think lah. very empirical and mathematical.

bibliobibuli said...

why shouldn't a scientist write beautifully, nel? why can't a scientist love literature? in the early days of scientific discovery there was no artificial divide between arts and sciences and the true renaissance thinker pursued both

if you want scientists who can write try stephen jay gould and oliver sacks for a start and just see how beautiful their prose is, but at the same time how lucid the expression of very complex ideas

ms d - the topic isn't new, i've read about attractiveness in other books on evolutionary biology but as part of a bigger argument

Anonymous said...

I don't think Stephen Jay Gould writes "beautifully". He writes like a college lecturer. Take for instance :

“In other words, morphological change correlates so strongly with speciation not because cladogenesis accelerates evolutionary rates, but rather because such changes, which can occur at any time in the life of a local population, cannot be retained (and sufficiently stabilized to participate in selection) without the protection provided by individuation—and speciation, via reproductive isolation, represents nature's preeminent mechanism for generating macroevolutionary individuals."

It's typical scientist talk, full of jargon and industry terms. I don't see how that can be called "beautiful", all scientists write like that these days.

Here's why I think scientists should not always write "beautifully" (I'm assuming your definition of "beautiful writing" is S. J. Gould.) It all depends on their audience. If they're writing for the average man, then they should write clearly, concisely and attractively. It should be interesting and digestible.


On this page, you can see samples of his writing. What you can see clearly is that he varies his writing style according to his expected audience. He doesn't write the same way for "The Scientist" as he does for "Why People Believe Weird Things".

A scientist can write "beautifully", but it must have a time and place. you can't wax lyrical in a scientific journal for the same reason you can't wear jeans and a t-shirt to an opera.

As for Veran, what he does is nothing new. Many scientists have considered the possiblity that the concept of beauty can be made a science, that there possibly exists a formula that will allow someone to consistently "create" beauty.

bibliobibuli said...

i've thoroughly enjoyed s.j. gould's essays and found them very digestible and accessible. maybe another day i'll write about "bully for brontosaurus" which was probably the first popular science book i ever read and which whet my appetite for more by other authors. i've passed it on to others who have also enjoyed his work very much.

now why are you hiding behind an anonymous mask? (not my usual anonymous are you?)

bibliobibuli said...

sorry meant to add

As for Veran, what he does is nothing new. Many scientists have considered the possiblity that the concept of beauty can be made a science, that there possibly exists a formula that will allow someone to consistently "create" beauty.

i think ms d and i made this point earlier. but it all depends on his research, doesn't it? i don't think everything there is to be said has been said.

Anonymous said...

re: anon on june 13, 10:43pm

talk about being a wet blanket! this said anonymous person judges a book from a small review, and without having read it! (like the malaysian authorities, actually) it's a wonder anyone can get anything published with people like this around.

Amir said...

"A writer must have the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist."

- Nabokov. Beautiful. Mwahaha!

Anonymous said...

I've been debating whether I should leave a comment... I think I will, if only to correct the many spelling mistakes of my name!

That aside, I do hope people will read the book before passing judgement. I feel I have something of interest to say (but then, I would say that!), though whether or not I say it beautifully I'll let readers decide...

For what its worth, I think there are different kinds of science writers - typically there are the academic, but there are also the accessible (I would class Gould in this category), the intriguing (Madison Smartt Bell's Lavoisier in Year One, for instance), and the literary (Primo Levi, who was a chemist by training). Anyway...


bibliobibuli said...

so sorry for misspelling your name! aiyoh! am red-faced now

very happy that you dropped by, and agree with you totally that people should read before passing judgment.

science writing can be highly entertaining. i'm enjoying daniel gilbert's "stumbling on happiness" which is extremely funny in parts, and is at the same time making me see the world in new ways.

vs - are you going to be back in malaysia any time soon? and is there a paperback version in the pipeline? it is hard to sell a book for RM120 to the wider public

Anonymous said...

I know, RM120 is a lot...but as you worked out, its not much different from the UK price of £16.99. I'm afraid there aren't plans for a paperback, at least not until the current print run is sold-out or some big publisher comes in for me... So, consider the book an investment! :)

Not sure when I'll next be in Malaysia - end of the year maybe. But I tend to go home to KK rather than spend much time in KL, a city I really don't care for very much...


bibliobibuli said...

i've talked myself into buying it, vs! that's the trouble with writing about books.

was going to say that if you are in kl at an end of a month when we're holding readings we'd love to invite you to take part

nel said...

I never find it a problem to get expensive books (if my budget holds), only if they are suited to my interest or worth the knowledge to be on the rack. The problem is the space on the rack. A good book will always worth it, if I ever get around to read them ... lol ... :D

Anonymous said...

Blah all of you people.. if you think he's accessible, can you explain to me what the earlier paragraph means ? :P

bibliobibuli said...

it's a long sentence with some pretty big technical words. well surprise surprise, it was taken from a technical book written for fellow scientists and not one of gould's very accessible essays written for the general public. if i wrote a technical paper in my field (linguistics) you'd be scratching your head at the jargon too because you aren't in that field yourself. i could take the same content though, and make it accessible to readers of the star

(gould used this material in his later essays and books for the public but of course never used this kind of language there)

if you haven't read stephen jay gould do start with his most accessible stuff "bully for brontosaurus" isn't a hard read and is extremely entertaining and informative

the first gould i read was a little extract from that book published as a little book in the penguin 60's series. one essay was about little snails on some island somewhere and i found myself caring passionately about these creatures when i'd never heard about them or the island before!! the essay about why men have nipples is pretty darn good, why pandas still have thumbs and why evolution can be compared to the qwerty keyboard.

i loved this guy for sharing his knowledge and making it it accessible to me, so that for the first time i began to see how evolution works. i learned too how a good hook can draw a reader into even quite a technical piece

don't judge before you read, anon, and that is my challenge to you. if you want to read something by gould i have most of his books.

nel said...

... your comment on why men have nipples is pretty darn good, why pandas still have thumbs ... remind me of when I was watching march of the penquins, and people ask the question of why penquins feet don't get frozen standing on cold ice. The many question we ask on wonders of nature ... :)

Anonymous said...

would love to join you for one of your readings if and when i'm in KL, though i'm too much of an introvert to do any public readings myself...

nel: you might try the New Scientist's "Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze" and "Does Anything East Wasps?" which should answer your - and many more - questions on nature!


Anonymous said...

Actually that makes my point, doesn't it ? scientists don't (and can't) write beautifully when they're writing for technical journals. The can write beautifully, but if they do it's not, strictly speaking, scientific. Science does not, as a rule, concern itself with beauty (except in a very utilitarian, matter-of-fact sense.)

Lingustics is a science, isn't it ? I don't think if you were writing a paper for a linguistics journal you'd be using beautiful words ? as you said yourself, you'd talk just like any other scientist. This stuff, the beautiful words "Bully for Brontosaurus" stuff, isn't so much scientific as it is based on science. It's not, strictly speaking, very true or accurate, it's just "sexed up", the same way a movie that's "based on a true story" isn't really true. It's sort of true, but there are inaccuracies and things done to make it sound more exciting and "sexy".

All this stuff is fun and very interesting to read, but it'd be a stretch to call it "scientific", hence science (by which I mean formal science) and beauty will probably always have a relationship that is platonic at best.

bibliobibuli said...

you are trying to convince yourself that you are making a valid point but in fact you're wandering round in circles saying nothing much at all, quite frankly.

Anonymous said...

I'm not ? I've never seen a beautifully-written article in a professional journal.

Anonymous said...

You seem to taking a very rigid definition of 'beauty'. Can a journal article be beautiful? Well, it depends what you mean by beauty. Gould and Lewontin's 1979 paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, for instance, was an entirely academic paper dealing with exaptations (traits that evolved for other usages, or no function at all, but were later 'co-opted’ for their current role), but I consider the article 'beautiful' for the simple way in which its authors put forward their case. And their use of the spandrels on the arches of the cathedral of San Marco (there solely as a side -effect of the construction of the arch) to make their point enhances the simplistic beauty of the paper. Granted, not everyone will agree, hence the aphorism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Anyway, the point is that a piece of writing doesn't have to use 'beautiful words' (what are these, anyway?) to be beautiful. There is, after all, more than one way to be beautiful - in literature or otherwise.

Having said all that, I do think much academic writing is dull to the uniniated eye; but the point of an academic article is to convey some factual or theoretical point to other scientists, not to convince the reader that its author is the next Borges or Kafka.