“Klein has chosen an eclectic group to tackle everything from expected questions about their areas of study to issues concerning religion, morality, pain, and parenthood.”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

The title of this review comes from Roald Hoffmann who says it is curiosity that sets scientists apart – though one might comment that all creative minds are curious.

All scientists have reasons for why they became what they did, though it may or may not be a specific ‘eureka’ moment. However they do have inspirations and people they can enumerate when they look back on their careers. Things that prevented them from giving up when life was at its most difficult or when the haul seemed longer and more tiresome. Some of them could pinpoint the moments of insight that transfigured their work. Alison Gopnik for example found new insights into raising children through a group of jazz musicians. Steven Weinberg was inspired by a sports car.

We Are All Stardust  brings together 19 scientists who talk about what made their lives. Some, like Jane Goodall are well known. Others are familiar only to those in their respective fields. The rather eclectic collection has been put together to prove that people of science retain their emotions and their imagination. They are not clusters of formulae tied down by technicalities but human and fallible and they can be approachable and even enjoyable company.

Stefan Klein narrates his encounters with these scientists in a style that makes it easy reading for lay folk – though many readers may be a little hesitant to approach the subject in the beginning. Science, after all, is not everyone’s cup of tea. However the book’s task is to give new reality to a statement that has become something of a cliché and make people realise that everyone in the cosmos is linked in one way or another and Klein gets to grips with the subject from page one.

Reading the book, it is quite obvious that Klein is very well acquainted with the work of the people he interviews and that he has studied a wide range of subjects, covering Greek mythology, vital in any discussion on science,  world philosophy and even opera. All this helps him find the perfect balance of understanding and ease in his questions on usbjects that range from parenting to animal behaviour to scientific formulations. Add to that interesting titles – the chapter on Jared Diamond, for example, is called The Recalcitrant Zebra while Diamond turns out to be a man who distracted himself from the human gut through birdwatching and travels down the Amazon.

The interviews don’t often followed the tried and trusted journalistic path mixing respect and flattery in equal doses but, as the book cover says, turns the discussions into conversations with friends – in some cases perhaps a little too casual though that does not detract from the interest generated.  Ross Benjamin’s translation conveys the effortless approachability.

We are all Stardust brings together ideas captured almost in mid thought in a manner not previously explored and most readers are likely to discover a whole new galaxy of ideas waiting to be browsed through. Since the conversations are individual one can flip through the book at will. Some might be tempted to treat this as a self-help book because the question of what motivates people in difficult times and the lessons learned have  wide spread appeal.

 

Reviewed by:

Anjana Basu

Added 25th February 2016

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Anjana Basu

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