The Science of Discworld

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The Science of Discworld
Authors Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
Language English
Series Discworld
1st science novel

History of the world

Rincewind, Unseen University Staff
Unseen University, Roundworld
Genre Fantasy
Published 1999 (Random House)
ISBN 978-0091865153
Followed by The Science of Discworld II: The Globe

The Science of Discworld is a 1999 book by novelist Terry Pratchett and popular science writers Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Three sequels, The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch, and The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day, have been written by the same authors. The book alternates between a typically absurd Discworld story and serious scientific exposition after each chapter.

The purpose of the book is both to entertain and educate. In having fictional sections in which observers from a very different world with a very different set of rules look with confused eyes upon the Earth ("Roundworld"), the authors are able to expand upon things we take for granted, such as planets being round and stars being far away, in a manner which is free of a line of thinking which states "But that's obvious".

The cover of the book, designed by Paul Kidby, is a parody of the 1768 painting "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Plot summary[edit]

The Discworld part of the book begins when a new experimental power source for the Unseen University is commissioned in the university's squash court. The new "reactor" is capable of splitting the thaum (the basic particle of magic), in homage to the Chicago Pile-1 nuclear reactor, which was housed in a rackets court at the University of Chicago.

However, the wizards' new reactor produces vastly more magical energy than planned and threatens to explode, destroying the University, the Discworld, and the entire universe. The university's thinking engine, Hex, decides to divert all the magic into creating a space containing nothing — no matter, no energy, no reality, and, importantly, no magic. The Dean sticks his fingers in the space and "twiddles" them, inadvertently creating the universe. The wizards soon discover that they can move things around in the universe, using Hex. They call it the Roundworld (the Earth), because in it, matter seems to accrete into balls in space (instead of discs on the backs of turtles). They decide to appoint Rincewind, whom they dragged out of bed in the early hours of the morning, the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography, and send him down (against his will) to investigate this strange world.

The wizards create a series of balls of matter in space, and give one of them a Moon (accidentally). This stabilizes the ball enough that, over a score of millennia (the wizards can skip over vast periods of Roundworld time, allowing them to view the history of the universe in less than a month), blobs of life emerge, ready to begin evolving into more complex forms. The book also features a fictional crab civilization and the dinosaurs (both of which are wiped out by comets/asteroids colliding with the earth), before jumping ahead to when an advanced civilization (presumably humans) has evacuated the earth due to an impending natural disaster.

Ideas and themes[edit]

The science centres on the origins of the universe, earth and the beginnings of life, the fiction on the creation of a world (the Earth) in a jar. One of the themes is that most scientific explanations are in reality a good deal more complicated than most of us realize. It is explained that this is because their teachers use Lies-To-Children or, in Ponder Stibbons' case, Lies-To-Wizards.

Even-numbered chapters are self-contained essays that discuss, among others, the following topics:

  • Squash Court Science: Nuclear energy.
  • Science and Magic: What is science and how it works.
  • Beginnings and Becomings: The origin and nature of the Universe.
  • We are Stardust: Atoms. The periodic table.
  • The Shape of Things: The shape of the Universe; the Theory of Relativity.
  • Where do Rules Come From?: Is a "Theory of Everything" possible?; Quantum Mechanics.
  • Disc Words. The Solar System.
  • Earth and Fire. Geology: the structure of planet Earth.
  • Air and Water. The atmosphere, the oceans, the surface of the planet.
  • A Giant Leap for Moonkind: the moon.
  • Things that aren't: things that are defined by being opposites, normally with only one of them being measurable and not both (light, heat, etc.).
  • Despite which...: The origin of life.
  • Unnatural Selection: Evolution.
  • The Descent of Darwin: Evolution.
  • The Iceberg Cometh: Ice Ages.
  • Universals and Parochials: Evolution.
  • Don't Look Up: Meteors and other things that might cause another global extinction.
  • Nine Times out of Ten: Statistics and biases.
  • Running from Dinosaurs: dinosaurs.
  • The Death of Dinosaurs.
  • Mammals on the Make: the expansion of mammals.
  • Anthill Inside: The origin of hominids.
  • Extel Outside: Culture.
  • Ways to Leave your Planet: space travel.
  • Eden and Camelot. Conclusion.

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