The title of Science Is Culture: Conversations At The New Intersection Of Science + Society sets the tone for the collection’s discourse. It’s a statement of fact, not a question. The book is work without conflict, a compilation of five years of conversations the science magazine Seed instigated between scientists and non-scientists as part of its Seed Salon series. Many of the pairings were collaborating before Seed brought them together, with projects such as Richard Colton’s dance adaptation of Alan Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams. Others, like stem-cell researcher and photographer Ariel Ruiz I Altaba, were already known for cross-discipline projects. The strong frame of common reference means that for better or worse, Science Is Culture reads like a transcription of 22 amiable dinner conversations held between highly intelligent, articulate, informed people.
Some of the chats bring up fascinating points. In a conversation with Robert Stickgold, a Harvard University professor specializing in sleep and dreaming, Science Of Sleep director Michel Gondry muses that viewers are willing to accept film cuts that take them abruptly from one place to another because they have experience with that phenomenon in dreams. Stanford University biological engineer Drew Endy discusses the difficulty of pioneering the new field of synthetic biology, where he and his colleagues are attempting to learn enough about how life works to build new organisms from the ground up. But the short 10 pages devoted to each chat means that none of the topics get fully developed.
Instead, the book moves on to often-weaker and more mundane chapters. Some devolve into name-dropping without context, as the guests mention a contemporary or an influence, then quickly move on to something else. A chapter on climate politics with activist Laurie David and climate scientist Stephen Schneider is mostly devoted to complaining about how special interests have prevented action to protect the planet, with Schneider griping about how he’s lucky to get a spot on Real Time With Bill Maher, while Michael Crichton can use a novel to denounce climate change, and wind up on Oprah. When Noam Chomsky talks with evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, the discussion about the evolutionary basis for deceit and self-deception never gains traction, because they spend so much time venting frustrations about the invasion of Iraq. The free rein given to the Seed Salon participants might have worked better if they had the time and space to get back to the crunch of their topics, but the structure keeps Science Is Culture’s intellectual gems from fully shining.