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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

If You Read, Review, Judge Books

That Have Anything to Do With Science — or, actually, any form of Nonfiction, You Must Read This: Brian Greene, the author, is the famously brilliant physicist at Columbia who also — just this past weekend — organized the first World Science Fair in New York’s Washington Square Park. We went, my two sons had their faces painted in very complete, professional, and hard to scrub off ways; my older son and I went to a presentation by the Disney folks that mixed some science, and a pro-science outlook, with a tedious advertsiement for all things Disney; friends with an older daughter heard Dr. Greene himself talk about Einstein, absolute zero, and other cool things and were thrilled. It was a rainy day, the Disney animated dinosaur was a big hit — I suspect that fair will get bigger and better year after year. But the mixed results of this inaugural effort are not the reason why I say you must read his essay.

Dr. Greene takes issue with the way we teach science (I’d add social science to that). He points out that we take the vertical approach — you need to learn each step of skill and simpler information before you, finally, at the very end of high school (maybe) get to the big questions — why does the universe exist? where does life come from? what is the link between a brain and thought? In other words, we treat science (and I would say nonfiction knowledge more generally) as these discrete an uninteresting bits to be mastered — not as a grand vista for the most exciting questioning. Science, he argues, is a "way of life" not a dutiful slog.

So I say to you, all of you who read, review, judge nonfiction books — look for the big picture approach, the question, the inquiry, in the book. Look for how the book excites (or fails to excite) the mind, the imagination — the theory-building side — of a child. It is not always about story. It is not always about details of facts. It is not always about starting from my world, my experience, my family, hometown, backyard, pet. The thrill of nonfiction is in how it opens the mind to the largest, biggest, most consequential questions. Look for books that inspire minds to question and think. That’s what Dr. Greene suggests, and I could not agree more.



    For a great reenactment of this way of looking at science, see episode 10 of Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.” It’s called “Galileo Was Right.” My family and I watched it last night. Two exceptional geology/geophysics professors try to teach astronauts, who are essentially engineers, how to find the most interesting rocks in any given area of the moon by starting with the big picture.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Sounds terrific