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A New Encyclopedia

The Harper Encyclopedia of Science

edited by James R. Newman
Harper & Row, 4 vols., 1379 pp., $29.95

We cannot claim that ours is either the right century or the right nation for producing a good general encylopedia. Our talent seems to run more to specialized handbooks. Thus professional sociologists have long had their enviable Encylopedia of the Social Sciences, put together under a board of directors that included such notables as Franz Boas and John Dewey, and so useful over the years that many are now worried whether the projected revision can meet the same standards. Similarly, the scientists produced a few years ago the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, the first adequate work of its kind in the English language.

But few indeed are those who expect to get this set as a Christmas gift: Its fifteen volumes cost $175, and they are of course meant primarily for the reader who has had considerable technical training. Moreover, the McGraw-Hill encyclopedia managed to squeeze the genie of science into a mere 10,000 pages only by keeping out all biographical or historical material as well as medicine, methodology, and the sociology of science. What the general reader needs, however, is an encyclopedia that somehow not only includes all these aspects of the sciences and their relations, but that also speaks to him patiently in fundamental detail.

Add to this the desirabality of making such an encyclopedia manageable in size and cost and one sees the full difficulty of turning this trick at all—a difficulty matched only by the pressing need for an up-to-date reference source in which scientists write without jargon for the intelligent non-scientist. If such a layman is at all alive to the new ideas and achievements in science and technology during the last decade or two, he must feel keenly his inability to understand and enjoy some of this excitement. To be shut off from even an elementary insight into today’s scientific advances—such as the translation of the genetic code, the discoveries of fundamental symmetries among the elementary particles, or the current mapping of our galactic systems (as most people are who lack the terminology and background)—must surely be as painful to any thinking person as it would have been to be ignorant of Greek in Athens at the time of Sophocles, to be blind in Florence during the Renaissance, or to be deaf in Vienna at the time of Mozart.

To create a layman’s encyclopedia of science, Harper asked James R. Newman to assume general editorship. His special interest is mathematics, a field in which he has edited and written several books, including the widely used The World of Mathematics and the scholarly Goedel’s Proof (with Ernest Nagel). A lawyer by training, he was the counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Atomic Energy in the immediate post-war years. Since 1948, he has been a member of the Board of Editors of Scientific American, where he is in charge of book reviews; month after month he writes and assembles an impressive number of perceptive evaluations on current publications in all the sciences and related fields.

The result of his work—and that of several hundred contributors, largely scientists and scholars in the United States—is four volumes of nearly 1500 pages. The whole area of physical science is covered: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology and geophysics, mathematics. Major entries have been provided also in technology and in the life sciences: biology, medicine, anatomy, and physiology. There are short biographies of scientists, including some of the major contributors of today, and short notes on many classic books and essays. There are extensive entries in logic and the philosophy of science, a fairly good list of books for further study, arranged by field, and some 2500 illustrations. Altogether, it is a handsome work, and it will be a long time before anybody else makes an effort of this kind again.

This much can be ascertained at a glance. But the big question is, of course, whether the volumes really fulfill the needs of the nonprofessional reader. Almost any reference work will give the same answers to simple questions (When was Whitehead born? What flower is pollinated by moths? What, in main outline, is the construction of an oar-driven galley or an iconoscope?). But the test for this special work must be, for example, whether the proverbial intelligent layman can discover from it what DNA is and does, or why parity sometimes is conserved and sometimes is not. Does the encyclopedia explain the complementarity principle, or how computers work? Does it indicate the locations and special areas of the main research centers? Does it give a good summary of the theory of equations?

These questions are more difficult to answer in a general manner for two reasons. One is that the articles in any encyclopedia will vary greatly in coverage and soundness. The other is that evaluating a new encyclopedia is like reporting on the success of a marriage; one cannot tell much after living with the work for only a month.

But three things become quickly clear. First, this is a serious work. When comparing it with large, general encyclopedias, such as the Britannica, I find significantly more entries in this new publication, particularly of recent (post-World War II) importance. Possibly on the principle that well-established older material is amply covered almost everywhere else, the stress here seems to be on more recent developments. Thus, for example, the biographies, which are numerous enough (1500), are rather brief; for this type of information the reader will sometimes wish to seek additional material in more general encyclopedias, if not in more specialized biographical reference works.

A seriousness of purpose—shown here in a sense of what to stress, and in other ways as well—is important in an encyclopedia. It should not be necessary to say this, if it were not for the sad fact that so many encyclopedias now lack serious purpose. It seems to me that even long-standing reference works have their eyes more and more firmly fixed on the large market composed mainly of pre-college students (or their anxious parents and their time-pressed teachers). One sometimes wonders what has happened to the major patron of earlier times, the thoughtful reader who used his encyclopedia regularly, as a good habit rather than because he had to hand in homework the next morning.

Secondly, I find that Newman’s volumes have largely avoided what I regard as the most maddening aspect of the Britannica—its lengthy, highly technical treatises on important scientific subjects, written at a level so high that the entry can be of no use to the non-specialist, and yet so general that the specialist finds it of no use either. Newman’s contributors have, by and large, made a serious attempt to stay within the limits of a vocabulary accessible to the layman.

Even so, they have by no means always succeeded. This third point seems to me fundamentally disquieting. Modern science has in many instances moved too far beyond the reach of the vocabulary and intuition of the “intelligent layman” to permit him to catch up with the use of even a seriously intentioned new science encyclopedia. For example, when reading up on entropy, he will have to hurdle the remark, “we resort to another ordering influence, namely that of adiabatic demagnetization of a paramagnetic substance.” Reading on DNA and nucleic acids he is told: “There are two major classes of nucleic acids based on the type of sugar they contain (RNA and DNA). The nucleotides of RNA contain the four bases cytosine, uracil, adenine, and quanine. In those of DNA, thymine replaces uracil.” Behind each of these relatively brief entries lies an educational task represented by a textbook, or at least by a good long Scientific American-type article on that subject. Thus, where it might be needed and consulted most often, a manageably short science encyclopedia turns out to be a contradiction in terms.

Must one therefore resign oneself to being blind in Florence, i.e., to being a helpless non-scientist in the twentieth century? I do not think so. A solution—or the nearest present approximation—would be to have this encyclopedia, and supplement it whenever necessary in two ways. For a lengthier treatment of historically settled matters (e.g., biographical detail, older concepts and techniques), I would also consult the 11th, 12th, or 13th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with possibly a new edition of the one-volume Columbia Encyclopedia as a standby. For lengthier explanations of difficult current subjects, one must be prepared to go to texts (such as those listed on the last pages of Newman’s encyclopedia), or at least to specially selected articles. In this connection, it is particularly regrettable that no bibliographical resources are listed at the end of each entry.

Some day we should have one work that fulfills all these functions. Each major entry would be an essay, sufficiently long and detailed to instruct the reader who has interest but little background. The size and cost of this work would therefore be enormous—if it has to be printed for direct reading, and moreover used by an audience suffering from the present lack of elementary scientific education. But this may not be a necessary condition; one can dream of a radical technical improvement. It is not at all inconceivable that eventually large books will be condensed, not merely on microfilm, but even into small video-tape packages. These could be inserted into a convenient TV-type box, and viewed or glanced through as “print” on the screen. This presentation could also include sound, animated illustrations, or films. Consulting such an encyclopediaon-tape could also be far more effective pedagogically than consulting printed pages.

It has been reported that a device of this general type is being developed for home-viewing of tapes based on commercial or home-produced films. It is not a science-fiction expectation that the same principle will be applied to the viewing of “books.” In the meantime, The Harper Encyclopedia of Science is far more helpful than any other reference work within its intended range.

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