There can be some amount of certainty about this statement when regarding our language: The tradition of writing about Biology is much richer than the tradition of writing about physics, a field that began its decline from the top spot of the big sciences when the plane carrying MIT's Samuel Ting landed in the Bay Area during the "November Revolution" and an important particle (J/ψ meson) was confirmed and added to the Standard Model. The literary richness of biology can in part be attributed, I think, to Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species is a masterpiece of English literature—as well as The Voyage of the Beagle. It can also in part be that biology demands a more sumptuous application of language because of its subject's staggering abundance, its natural hostility to reductionism, and its evolving processes of cooperation. As the British cosmologist Martin Rees points out in his book Our Cosmic Habitat: An ant is more complex than the sun. Writing about the physics of a star can't help but result in a kind of writing that's minimal. Writing about even a bacterium on the antenna of an ant induces in a writing that's very productive.
I bring all of this up because tonight at Town Hall, Nicholas P. Money, a Professor of Botany at Miami University, reads from a new book, The Microbes Around Us, that in my opinion continues a tradition of beautiful, lush, opulent writing that was inaugurated near the middle of the 19th century.
Here is a sample:
To approach a meaningful picture of marine biology, we need to put aside the things studied by zoologists. A sushi bar to end all sushi bars will foster the necessary thought experiment. Every morsel of marine muscle must be eaten in this last supper: all the hagfish, lampreys, sharks, rays, and bony fish are diced, rolled in sticky rice, wrapped in seaweed, kissed with soy sauce, and swallowed; the red meat from whales, dolphins, manatees, and walruses works well as sashimi and sea turtles make soup; all the oysters slip down with the assistance of cold white wine, all the squid are crunched calamaried; orange sea urchin gonads make a sloppy topping for sushi rolls and jellyfish can be fried. Crabs and lobsters are dispatched after boiling, along with the related sea spiders, barnacles, and fish lice. This is a lot of food: fish, great whales, and Antarctic krill alone weigh more than 1,000 million tons. That leaves the sponges and comb jellies, penis worms and other worms, and exotics like mud dragons, but most of the gustatory labor is over and the ocean is much clearer for it. Now we can turn our full attention to the 90 percent of living things in the sea that cannot be seen without a microscope.The book is filled with this kind of writing, this kind of fleshy imagery, these kinds of pleasures. Life is textual.