A Deconstructive Critics' Guide to On Giants Shoulders
Character One The Enthusiastic Tour Guide writing his Introduction
Melvyn Bragg is the enthusiastic tour guide through the self-created scientific museum. In this museum are twelve scientists who have "changed the world both as we perceive it and as we live in it". Here, the ETG is using the well-worn metaphor of "changing the world" in a definite, high modality way. There is no doubt that these people changed the world. He is also under no doubt that the people who provided the background for such a place were "leading" scientists of his day this journalistic adjective written to add weight to their authority as experts. This tour guide goes on to use adjectives like "honourable" to justify his approach of writing the book about 12 different scientists, that these central figures "arouse" interest (presumably this verb is directed at potential responders).
He goes on later to discuss his reasons for becoming a tour guide "my own interest in science is, I would guess, fairly typical of my generation" (notice the medium modality way of avoiding a definite "I am typical". He thought that science was "being reinvented, reshaped, reunderstood" in the "most dazzling intellectual pleasure garden of the twentieth century." To Bragg, "change" was happening without his comprehension, and he was curious about it. Furthermore, this change is described with amplified adjectives such as "dazzling" and "pleasure". So, his intentions are clear. He wants to position himself as an ordinary late twentieth century person, and be a conduit for those he considers to be "like him" interested in science, but needing a comprehendible way of learning it. He wants the responder to believe that this is a "guide" to science, and the change it causes, and that will arouse their interest in it.
As for his views on the "change" they have wreaked, Bragg is fairly positive in his introduction. Faraday "commanded the intellectual society" due to his change (use of a powerful verb); Marie Curie was "heroic", the adjective summarising Braggs view of her quest for change; Newton being "impenetrable" indicating the complexity of the man who wreaked the change; Galileo as a "successful" bringer of new worlds and "unsuccessful intriguer" in old ones, indicating Braggs positive outlook on Galileos change. Also, to Bragg, science was turning to technology "like magic" and "technology turning the Earth into a new planet". He asks the rhetorical questions with capital letters, indicating their importance "Better? Worse? Doomed? Released? Who really knew? But the speed and the whoosh of the enterprise is wonderful." So, to Bragg, he uses onomatopoeia to indicate the excitement he felt at the speed of change, no matter whether it was positive or negative. By then switching to other rhetorical questions on p.7, it is clear that these competing questions about change will dominate the book.
What is also important about the introduction is the birth of his equivocal, medium to low modality approach to writing the book. After all, he is just a tour guide. "By asking simple, but, I hope, central questions" he is showing his stated wish to be an objective voice, even if it does sound like a bit like false modesty. Indeed, he calls the book a "modest" enterprise, and then tempers this low modality with "but one which seeks to reach out to the deep past of science [seeing] the giants [who] are as clear as pylons striding down the landscape of history". Again, by using such power-laden metaphors, Bragg is justifying his approach to "change" as an issue.
The ETG taking us on the Tour
When Bragg writes his chapters, he starts with small descriptions of the achievements of the subject, as to attract the reader to the rest of that chapter. Amplified adjectives such as "magical", "great", "immense", "radically challenged", "revolutionary ideas" indicate Braggs intention to illustrate how good these scientists were in making changes to the world. He then switches to a low-medium modality journalist by asking questions of scientists, including many "would", "could", "whether", "I wondered". This style of questioning is designed to position Bragg as a mediator between the curious responder and the scientist. After all, Bragg did say that he hoped his questions were central ones, that maybe responders would want to ask. This concept of Bragg as inquisitive tour guide is extended by his constant use of "intrigued", which is meant to describe his attitude towards the way the scientists discuss the changes. Again, a low modality word.
At times, though, Bragg becomes mere witness of the nature of scientific argument. He often attributes scientists with the power of certain, high modality statements, eg. "Paul Davies believes" (before a key passage on p. 50); "Gould takes the story on". This matches the high modality nature of what the scientists are saying in those passages. Paul Davies, Stephen Jay Gould, John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins often issue statements that indicate this propensity for stating that they have the best view on an issue. Examples:Davies " But the fact that is the scientists world view" (p. 51)Gould "Darwin was clearly a philosophical radical" and "The terrible mistake that the hyper-strict Darwinists make" (p. 180) (the pejorative adjective word "hyper" indicates that wants to position his opponents as possessing a flawed and unnatural approach to the topic).
Smith "I like to think that Darwin on the whole would be on my side" (note here the slight modality shift between Gould and Smith Smith does use the medium modality phrases "I think" and "would" to indicate some modesty and ability to convince a responder that he is not completely filled with the idea that he is completely right.)
Bragg links his chapters together in a variety of ways. He often tells the story of the scientists life, quoting various scientists who comment on these periods. This way, the responder can have a chronological history, as well as philosophical discussions about the changes wreaked.
The Scientists on Change
Often the best quotes about change come not from the ETG, but from the scientists in his museum. They are composers as well, even co-composers in many ways. For without their interviews, there would not have been a book. Also, dont forget, these scientists are at the forefront of change themselves (eg. Davies and his team have just come up with an alterative theory on light to Einsteins). So, their quotes have a great deal of weight, in regards to opinions on change.
The best passages to analyse as a comment on change are as follows:
- Davies on Galileo. p. 50 51 and p. 60 - 61 Davies uses high modality phrases, positive adjectives such as "novel", the positive adverb "clearly" to indicate that he is enthusiastic about the change wrought by Galileo. In the passage on p. 60, he paints the reaction to change as the amplified adverb "shock" and Galileos changes as the adjective "famous".
- JM Thomas on Peoples Reaction to Change. p. 150 - 151 This passage uses amplified adjectives such as "evils" to indicate how opponents often see science, and uses pejorative adjectives such as "cultured", "ignorant" (in a juxtaposition) to describe his negative feelings about those who resist change. This is emphasised by his claims of being "depressed" finding the attitude "a bit sad really".
- Richard Dawkins on the Knee-Jerk Reaction. P. 323. This passage indicates Dawkins ability to use pejorative adjectives such as "knee jerk" to describe those who resist change. Then again, he does modify this by saying, "I am very prepared to be persuaded" about the issue of cloning. The use of the adjective very indicates this preparedness to listen to opposition to change. That this comes from a scientist at the forefront of change is important.
- Davies on the "Theory for Everything" p. 355 356. In this passage, Davies is using his language a concentration on the medium to low modality (I think, maybe, if, sometimes) to indicate how science might be able describe the physical world in ever more decreasing detail, but that this will not change the way we necessarily see humanity.
- Bragg on Change p. 332. Bragg himself outlines his own view on change most succinctly in this passage. He believes that the emphasis on coverage of scientific issues "seem" to "fall on sciences monstrous possibilities simplified and sensationalised". Here, he in indicating that the cultural composers of modern society currently present science in a negative light, of which Bragg does not approve this proven by his use of pejorative adjectives. He goes on to denigrate these visions of change by using inverted commas to describe the way they portray scientific change horrors. Bragg answers these visions with the positive results of change such as cures, transport, domestic ease and public entertainment. Most of these "positive" changes affect the middle class in a more profound manner than it does others, which indicates Braggs target audience. Bragg goes on to say that "as this book has unfolded, I think, is a story of enhancing the lightness of being." In other words, Bragg hopes (he again is moderating his modality with "I think") that, through this book, that he has shown the positive result of change. This is reinforced by his metaphor that scientists are "messengers from us to and from the unknown". This provides a direct link to the "magic" and the "pleasure garden" of his introduction. Whenever a composer uses such elevated metaphors, it indicates that he/she admires both the scientific achievements and the change wrought by the scientists. To Bragg, they are doing the work of the "unknown" force that guides our world. This is part of a liberal humanist approach to change which states that all change is good if it initiates critical and profound thought about the world and our place in it.
So, that is a potted approach to Bragg. Apply the approach to other passages if you wish Im sure you can find the passages that discuss change in a detailed fashion. Also, compare Braggs intellectual enthusiasm (mostly tempered by an unintrusive, medium modality approach) with Audens high modality criticism of change. That way, youll be able to quote a high quality text in contrast with Braggs constant cheeriness.