by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Ebury Press


336pp/14.99/June 1999

The Science of Discworld

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The Science of Discworld, a collaborative effort by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, is an interesting, although flawed attempt to write a popularization of science. The basic idea is sound, but it doesn’t always work in its execution. Terry Pratchett has written a novella about his wizards of Unseen University. Having broken the narrative into short chapters, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen have taken the events of the story as a jumping off point for explaining scientific concepts.

The story begins with Ponder Stibbons, one of Pratchett’s few competent wizards, inventing the Discworld equivalent of a nuclear reactor. As the wizards go off for lunch, Pratchett’s co-authors step in to give an explanation of the creation for the first sustained nuclear reaction at Stagg Field. As the story progresses, bringing in a wide variety of physical, chemical and biological sciences, Stewart and Cohen explain how these sciences work in our own world, or Roundworld as they’ve dubbed it (although Globeworld or Orbworld might have been more accurate).

Unfortunately, the authors’ attempts at cleverness frequently get in the way of their explanation of sometime complex scientific theories. Their explanations are often short, with hints of more elaborate explanations or other interesting ideas. Instead of tackling many of these, Stewart and Cohen resort to one of the things they call lies-to-children, in this case an oversimplification of difficult concepts.  As the book progresses, Stewart and Cohen are able to build on the information they have already given, but frequently they settle more for the history of the scientific method rather than explaining the science.  They are hampered by their decision not to include any diagrams or formulae in the book, in one case referring the reader to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time rather than including E=mc2.

For his part, Pratchett is also hampered by the inclusion of the science chapters.   The exploits of the wizards of Unseen University and Rincewind are broken up into short chapters, frequently only a couple of pages in length.  Furthermore, they are written specifically to permit the science chapters to be interpolated.  Because of this, they appear somewhat contrived and choppy, although they read better if read straight through, skipping the alternating science chapters.

While The Science of Discworld is a clever idea for a book, unfortunately, the execution was lacking, leading to a book which doesn't satisfy the Discworld fan, nor does it fully provide a scientific background for the layman.

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