Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Judgement Day Cover

Wizards fight Priests for con­trol of Roundworld in the latest Science of Discworld book.

The Science of Discworld series is one of the more inter­est­ing ideas in pop­u­lar sci­ence writ­ing. The first came out in the late 90s when there was a fad for the Science of the X Files or the Physics of Star Trek books. Between them Pratchett , Stewart and Cohen had a very sens­ible idea. A Science of Discworld book that explained how the creatures of Discworld could work would be rub­bish. You could write about genet­ics, selec­tion and hunt­ing strategies to explain why a troll under a bridge would wait for a third billy-goat to cross. But the answer is noth­ing to do with bio­logy, it’s simply how stor­ies work. There wouldn’t be much of story if the first goat kicked the troll over, yelled “Eat dynam­ite you filthy ore!” and blew the troll up.

Instead the Science of Discworld books have taken another tack. There’s a story that altern­ates with non-fiction chapters that dis­cuss the sci­ence around the story. In the first book a magical acci­dent means that the wiz­ards at Unseen University need to use a lot of magic rap­idly before some­thing cata­strophic hap­pens. The res­ult is the Roundworld Project, using magic to cre­ate a uni­verse with no magic in it. The wiz­ards then observe the form­a­tion of galax­ies, stars, plan­ets and life.

The second and third books had stronger plots, with bad­dies from Discworld escap­ing into Roundworld to cause havoc. In the second book elves change his­tory res­ult­ing in Arthur J Nightingale being the world’s greatest writer and not Shakespeare. While chan­ging his­tory back the book dis­cusses the devel­op­ment of Mind in humans. In the third his­tory is altered so that Charles Darwin writes Theology of Species instead of The Origin… and the dis­cus­sion con­nects evol­u­tion into a wider debate about how sci­ence develops.

The fourth is sub­titled Judgement Day. A con­ser­vat­ive reli­gious sect of the Omnians has found out about the Roundworld pro­ject. Despite liv­ing on Discworld, the Omnians believe the world is round like ball and that Roundworld is blas­phemy. They sue for own­er­ship. The non-fiction is about epi­stem­o­logy, how do we know what we know? It sounds like the book could be a simple sci­ence versus reli­gion rant. There’s more to it than that. The first half of the book doesn’t touch much on reli­gion, instead talk­ing about how sci­ence works.

A fre­quent defence of sci­ence know­ledge is that it is pro­vi­sional, so it is always open to improve­ment. It is also a pro­cess and Judgement Day does a good job of emphas­ising this. When the authors talk about super­seded ideas they don’t just talk about where other people went wrong. They also point out errors in pre­vi­ous Science of Discworld books, par­tic­u­larly the first.

In the later chapters there are more con­trasts between universe-centred and human-centred think­ing, which com­pare sci­entific and reli­gious atti­tudes to new know­ledge. If you’re determ­ined to take offence then you’ll have the oppor­tun­ity. Jewish Cathar Scientologists will be par­tic­u­larly annoyed that they’ve been singled out.

The writ­ing is as good as ever. I have skimmed through again look­ing for a brief sec­tion to lift. Sadly the self-contained parts that would make sense, like where prob­lems in the search the Higgs boson are described by com­par­ison to smash­ing a piano to see what’s inside, are too long to lift sens­ibly. It a shame because it’s not simply a mat­ter of explain­ing sci­ence, the text also has an enthu­si­asm for sci­ence. So it’s a shame that des­pite all that it’s only the fourth-best Science of Discworld book. It doesn’t help that Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is a much stronger and three-dimensional explor­a­tion of the dark side of faith than the short length of the story Judgement Day allows.

While read­ing it I had a sense that some­thing was not quite click­ing, but I wasn’t sure what. I think the reason is that the pre­vi­ous Science of Discworld stor­ies were largely set on Earth. The wiz­ards could mis­un­der­stand Earth in the story and then the mis­con­cep­tions were dis­cussed in the accom­pa­ny­ing chapters. In Science of Discworld IV the story is all set in the Discworld. As a res­ult the non-fiction chapters don’t quite mesh with the story. It is great that Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen are still ambi­tious and want to cre­ate some­thing new instead of tread­ing water, but this time it doesn’t quite gel.

Their will­ing­ness to think the premise of the series means that the authors haven’t res­ted on their laurels. Science of Discworld V should still be worth buy­ing. Another pos­sib­il­ity, with their interest in Xenoscience, Evolution or Mind would be Strata II or Dark Side of the Sun II.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the pre­vi­ous books, then this is still worth read­ing. If you haven’t read any Discworld books, the earlier Science of Discworld books would be bet­ter places to start.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

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