Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Book review: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

Capping off our semester at Oxford, I thought it appropriate to read Richard Dawkins’ autobiography.

Dawkins is a product, in part, of the University of Oxford, but also Oxfordshire. A bit of a local icon these days, he spent much of his youth on the family farm just outside of Oxford, went to Oxford for his studies, and soon after became part of the faculty.

An autobiography, I suppose, can serve many purposes for the writer. For Dawkins, it was an exploration of how he became who he is.

Be forewarned, that means a lot of stories from his childhood. And apparently his dissertation.

Still, I can respect the exploration. Even if I have to read a little more quickly through another story about nursery rhymes he once knew or him writing another computer program.

Even with (despite of?) that, the book travels quickly.

A few interesting points stand out.

He credits an amazing amount of his scientific development to the tutorial system at Oxford. Briefly, for some classes at Oxford, students a paired with a fellow. The reader will tutor a small number of students each term and meet with them individually every week. Each week is devoted to a new topic within a general theme. A student is expected to become an expert on the topic and write a report on it by the end of the week. Dawkins holds an education based on lectures and memorization in some disdain.

Another is his respect for his advisor and the intellectual environment of his graduate work. Of note, for seminars, his advisor “set the tone by interrupting almost before the speaker could complete his first sentence: ‘Ja, ja, but what do you mean by…?’ This wasn’t as irritating as it sounds, because [his advisor's] interventions always aimed at clarification and it was usually necessary.” I sat through a number of talks in Dawkins’ Zoology at Oxford and, unfortunately, never heard an interruption.

Lastly, his description of life as a fellow in an Oxford college is well described “The life of a tutorial fellow of an oxford college is in many ways a charmed one. I got a room in a glowing oolitic limestone medieval building surrounded by famously beautiful gardens; a book allowance, a housing allowance, a research allowance; and free meals (though not free wine, contrary to envious rumours) in the stimulating and entertaining company of leading scholars of every subject except my own.

How the Selfish Gene came about is also recorded well for posterity, at which the autobiography ends.

To be honest, most people’s lives likely would not warrant a biography, auto- or allo-. This one could have used an editor to draw more stories (and opinions) out of him.

Still, empirically, a good companion for a train across France.

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