Book review and goodnight.
The Science of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”
By Mary and John Gribbin
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is filled with humans whose souls manifest themselves as talking animals, armoured polar bears, and the quest to discover the nature of a mysterious substance called Dust that’s somehow responsible for maintaining all life. Not only does the fate of Lyra’s world hang in the balance, but the fate of Will’s world and of so many other worlds it’s impossible to tell just how many there are…
Pullman’s work sounds like classic fantasy writing, but in their book, The Science of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”, Mary and John Gribbin draw out the scientific points of the trilogy and explain the principals of psychology, multiple dimensions, and quantum entanglement.
Yeah, so when I got that LOTR science book, I also picked up one for this trilogy and for Harry Potter and the X-Files series, both of which I’m sure I’ll review here eventually. I was on a science kick or something, I guess…
So, while my first science review (Simulacra and Simulation) was for an agonizingly hard book, and the Science of Middle-Earth was for a decent, mid-level book…this one by the Gribbins is heartbreakingly easy to read, although it’s far enough below my capacity for understanding that I’m kind of insulted by some of the explanations the Gribbins give us. Not sure if that makes this look like I don’t like the book, but…let me tell you more about it.
There are some interesting things I learned here, especially the bits about polarization and making lenses, and about Schrödinger’s cat. I felt like I understood those sections pretty well, and also like the Gribbins weren’t trying to insult my intelligence and pull a fast one on me.
On the other hand, there were sections where that sort of thing happened and I was really confused about what age level this book was intended to appeal to. Obviously from the language, it’s a children’s book…but when you get to the chapter where they talk about psychoanalysis, they seem to expect the reader to be at an age where they can explain that fortune tellers can predict things based on what they learn about you, and they give an example of your bag being full of candy, and the fortune teller predicting you will get a cavity.
Then, on the other hand, they expect the reader to be at a level of maturity where they can introduce the concept of sex-related phobias…so I’m really not sure what they were going for. Doubt I’d be the only one puzzled by that, either.
The only other section where that confusion about the reader’s level of understanding comes in is, unfortunately, where they’re explaining about quantum entanglement. Personally, I think the idea is really fascinating, but then the Gribbins, who are decrying fortune telling and Carl Gustav Jung’s tendency to talk about psychoanalysis to an invisible entity, start trying to say that quantum entanglement is a possible explanation for why twins or lovers can know things about each other, even when they are separated. Like, that’s cute and all, but…seriously?
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point they jumped from the scientific method to something totally different, and it was just all weird…
Like, they do an okay job of explaining the basics of how entanglement works, scientifically…but they do a bad job with the “psychic skillz” part of it, even if I don’t believe it works that way in the fist place. For instance, they explain that twins could possibly be “entangled” in a way because they came from the same cell that split into two. Okay, fine. Maybe with some imagination I could buy into that. But then the Gribbins fail to account for fraternal twins, who don’t come from the exact same cell, and they don’t add anything to explain how quantum entanglement could ever work for lovers.
Even the obvious answer to this question about lovers—that it has something to do with sex—doesn’t really make sense, especially in light of the fact that the pair of main characters in the book are considered “lovers,” but they’re, like…twelve or something. There’s no pre-teen sex in Pullman’s novels (thankfully!).
So idk. On one and, this book did introduce me to a few concepts, like the Schrödinger’s Cat, but some of the science was definitely swapped out for bizarre, child-directed explanations. I think it took away from the value of the book, but that’s just me. I’d still recommend it to people who are either Pullman fans, or to young readers who like fantasy and science.
Not a whole lot to be offended by, except for the random and vaguely sex-related segments in the book. There is one bit where they seem to insinuate that science is hindered by “God” because if he’s in charge, humans aren’t allowed to be curious and ask questions about their world…but, eh. Whatever. The God vs. Science thing has been done already and I have no desire to jump on that argument.