review: the salmon of doubt
flipsockgrrl @ gmail .com
28 June 2002
Cambridge, 1952: DNA is launched upon an unsuspecting world.
Melbourne, May 2001: The ABC's Robyn Williams opens a public lecture by announcing that DNA has died suddenly, just a few hours ago. The lecture goes on. Professor Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, and Jeremy Mould, director of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory, explore the first few instants after the big bang and outline some cutting-edge theory about how the universe might or might not end.
Douglas Noel Adams--DNA--would have loved it.
Best known for the multiple, contradicting versions of "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", writer Douglas Adams at his peak combined comedy and storytelling in ways that inspired many imitations.
In the last 15 years Adams' passions shifted focus, perhaps because he found writing fiction such a slow, painful business: "I love deadlines--I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
He started writing articles and making speeches about computers and multimedia, about endangered species like the kakapo and the southern white rhino, and about evolution, maths, quantum physics, biology and Bach.
Now Peter Guzzardi has scoured Adams' hard disks to fill "The Salmon of Doubt", a collection of ephemera and drafts he never got around to finishing.
Here we find an extemporaneous speech to a convention of biologists: "I'll talk for a while and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there'll be an outburst of chair-throwing at the end." Adams goes on to outline the evolution of God and human understanding of the universe.
He pleads for an international standard for the dongly bits on computers: "It's hard to imagine that some of the mightiest brains on the planet, fuelled by some of the finest pizza that money can buy, haven't at some point thought, 'Wouldn't it be easier if we all just standardised on one type of DC power supply?'"
This was just one aspect of Adams' desperate longing for IT to fulfil its potential. "We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works," he remarked. "How do you recognise something that is still technology? A good clue is if it comes with a manual."
Other cherishable bits are the accounts of a fund-raising walk for rhinoceros conservation, why atheists don't believe in the non-existence of God, and the humiliation of being a tall kid in short trousers.
Tantalisingly, the book includes draft chapters of a third Dirk Gently novel, in which the quantum detective is engaged to find half a (live) cat.
Even in fragmentary, unfinished form, Adams' writing is a joy. The sad parts of the book were written after his death: Stephen Fry's introduction recalls Adams' literary background and his wide-ranging, infectious enthusiasm; and Richard Dawkins' closing comments are a lament for a good friend and passionate communicator of scientific ideas.
17 Dec: the
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