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Literature / The Science of Discworld

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The Science of Discworld, by Terry Pratchett, mathematician Ian Stewart, and biologist Jack Cohen, is one half Discworld novel, in which the wizards accidentally create a universe without magic and are fascinated by the way it develops its own rules in the absence of Narrative Causality, and one half popular science text, as Stewart and Cohen explain how the Roundworld Project (i.e., our universe) actually works.

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It was followed by three sequels:

  • In The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, the wizards must stop The Fair Folk preying on the superstitious folk of Elizabethan Roundworld, while Stewart and Cohen talk about the nature of storytelling and belief.
  • In The Science of Discworld III: Darwin's Watch, the wizards must stop the God of Evolution from seriously confusing Charles Darwin, while Stewart and Cohen discuss his theory in more detail than they had to spare in the first book.
  • In The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day, a sect of Omnian extremists start claiming Roundworld is evidence they were right all along about the shape of the world, and therefore it belongs to them, while a sceptical Roundworld librarian ends up on the Disc. Stewart and Cohen discuss the nature and practice of science, itself.
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The Science of Discworld series contains examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: Trying to prevent the murder of Darwin, Rincewind winds up getting a cannonball dropped on his foot.
  • Alternate History: Several in the later books, all of them ending with humanity failing to invent the Space Elevator before it's Giant Snowball Time.
  • Answers to the Name of God: The Dean, after creating the universe as we know it, responds to Ridicully's declaration of "Ye gods" with "yo?"
  • Arc Words: Each book has several core concepts that keep being re-stated in different contexts. The first book has Lies to Children and the "Space Elevator", which is a metaphor for doing something in such a way that it makes subsequent efforts easier, like building a space elevator so that you don't have to keep expending massive fuel payloads to launch things into space, or how DNA allows lifeforms to make copies of themselves by cheaply copying their existing genetic information. The second book uses the "make-a-human-being kit" for the set of cultural traits and social norms that a tribe uses to control the development of its offspring, and keeps asserting that humans are not in the genus of homo but are instead pan narrans, the "storytelling chimp".
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  • As You Know: Zigzagged in the fiction portions, in which Ponder uses this phrase out of politeness when he suspects Ridcully doesn't know something about physics; this gives him the chance to contrast Discworld physics (which the readers don't necessarily know) with Roundworld rules (which readers might know, but Ridcully doesn't).
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: William Shakespeare and Darwin, amongst others, are greatly influenced by the wizards.
  • Bigger Is Better: The Lecturer in Recent Runes' attitude to creating life that will withstand Roundworld's regular cataclysms - it's a limpet with a base a mile across, that eats whales.
  • Blob Monster: In the first book, Rincewind gets covered in morphless predatory life forms.
  • Call-Back:
    • During Reaper Man, a footnote on the High Energy Building noted that one day the older wizards were going to be very nervous when they learned just what it was the students were wanting to build on the squash court. Sure enough, the story begins with the students having finally built a Thing on the squash court, and the older wizards are nervous.
    • Remember Death's speech in Hogfather about how humans need fantasy to be humans? That idea plays a large part in the second book.
    • The wizard's scheme in book 2, inspired by Granny Weatherwax, is based on what she threatened the Elf Queen with back in Lords and Ladies.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: Early in Book 3, there's a bit on Very Big Things, an important part of any university faculty (if only because they keep students out of mischief).
  • Chekhov's Skill: The Luggage's ability to travel between worlds in pursuit of its master debuted in The Colour of Magic and was expanded upon in Eric. This ability is finally put to practical use in book II.
  • Colony Drop: Happens repeatedly in the first book, once (of course!) right on top of Rincewind.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The first book once again brings up the wizard fondness for Schmuck Bait, this time via the metaphor of guillotines. Put a sign up near one saying not to put your head in one, and wizards would never need to buy a hat again.
    • In order to demonstrate how un-magical Roundworld is, Ridicully bellows out eight repeatedly, and nothing happens. Doesn't stop the wizards cowering in fear.
  • The Constant: In the timelines in which Darwin fails to produce The Origin of Species, Richard Dawkins eventually does, suggesting that he is an evolutionary biologist in every possible timeline.
  • Creating Life Is Unforeseen: The wizards had just been throwing planets together. Actually creating life hadn't been their intention. Likewise, the Dean hadn't meant to create a universe. In that instance, Hex speculates that he'd just given the nothingness a little nudge it was looking for to really exist.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Rincewind is alarmed to see that Elizabeathan London has heads on spikes.
  • Desperate Object Catch: Rincewind drops the glass globe containing Roundworld when the Bursar pops up suddenly, then just barely catches it with a Diving Save. Something similar happens in the fourth book when Marjorie chases a zealot who has stolen Roundworld and, when he is cornered, he throws it at her.
  • Destination Defenestration: Some Omnians are thrown out the window in the fourth one.
  • Different World, Different Movies: When they write that intelligence appears to be useful enough that it would probably still have arisen is some form if we hadn't appeared (the fiction parts show a number of civilisations getting a foothold on Roundworld in much earlier epochs, only to be wiped out by cataclysmic disasters) they speculate that if sentient crabs had evolved on the Earth in humans' place, three of them might be writing The Science of Dishworld, about a bowl-shaped world that's carried on the backs of gigantic marine invertebrates.
    • In-universe, the third book is about the wizards' attempts to ensure that Charles Darwin writes On The Origin Of Species, not Theology Of Species.
  • Dissimile: While discussing a blob-like prehistoric life form, one of the wizards uses the phrase "dead man's shoes", then reflects that the blobs don't have feet, aren't smart enough to invent shoes, and don't have anything to make shoes out of.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Roundworld itself, as Rincewind and Twoflower briefly travel there in The Colour of Magic. The Librarian briefly encounters Darwin in the first book.
  • Exact Words:
    • What are the chances of Ponder's thaum-splitting magical reactor "just blowin' up and destroyin' the entire university?" None at all. If it goes up, it won't just blow up the university - it'll destroy the entire city, or even the Discworld.
    • In vol 2, Ridicully asks Hex to take the wizards to someone considered a genius among genius. Hex takes them to Isaac Newton's basement, but since it's Newton during his later years, the wizards only find his alchemy notes, and decide then and there he's a nutcase not worth bothering with.
    • Also in book 2, Hex tells Rincewind and Ponder that it can get the wizards out of Roundworld. Rincewind thinks carefully about this, and asks if it means alive. Hex pauses before saying yes, so Rincewind makes sure to ask alive and intact. When it is determined that they might be a little damaged, the two wizards go for another way to get them.
    • When discussing the works of Preserved J. Nightingale, who writes not-quite-there versions of Shakespeare's plays, Hex says he is considered the best artist of the time. But objectively speaking, he's utter crap.
  • Expy: Ratonasticthenes for Eratosthenes, and Antigonus for Archimedes.
  • The Fair Folk: In volume 2.
  • The Final Temptation: In vol 2, the Fairy Queen tries to tempt Rincewind into giving up on helping mankind. Her efforts fail because, as established back in Interesting Times, Rincewind's sole desire is potatoes (he be perfectly happy with a bag of crisps, even). The Fairy Queen is utterly baffled by this.
  • Foil: Rincewind and Ponder are foils to each other in the scenes they share together. Both are rational men, but in different ways. Ponder is a realist who relies on facts, while Rincewind is more intuitive and cynical.
  • Footnote Fever: Aside from the usual ones, early on in one of the non-fiction segments of the second book, it's stated that, in essence, the non-fiction parts of the book are extended versions of footnotes.
  • Foreshadowing: In the first book, several pre-human intelligent civilizations arise on Roundworld, only to be wiped out by asteroids or other disasters. After the demise of the dinosaurs, one of the wizards comments that a really intelligent civilization would get off the planet as soon as possible. In the end, human civilization escapes disaster by doing just that.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • The numerous events that prevent Shakespeare or Darwin from producing their works in alternate Roundworld timelines.
    • Hex also mentions how, in 1734, a German shoemaker named Joshua Goddelson left his house by the back door, setting in motion a chain of events that (somehow) leads to commercial fusion power in 2017.
    • In the universe where Preserved J. Nightingale wrote Macbeth, it's A: A comedy, and B: Much shorter, since Macbeth decides not to listen to the witches at all.
  • The Fundamentalist: The Omnian fundamentalists in the fourth book are so close-minded that they remain convinced only they know the True Word of Om even when the god in question manifests specifically to tell them to stop being idiots.
  • Gainax Ending: The first book ends with a giant, unliving turtle being spontaneously constructed in Roundworld space. "Recursion Is Occurring."
  • Giver of Lame Names: The elves are pretty impressed by Shakespeare's writing (though they're not sure about the "girdle around the earth in three minutes" thing), but one of them - an impossibly old one who's seen and done a lot - thinks maybe after hearing the name "Peaceblossom" that humans maybe aren't worth bothering with.
  • Giving Up on Logic: At first, the Wizards try to build a world using Discworld-logic, but after numerous failures, eventually Ponder Stibbons has a moment of Break the Scientist and determines that the only way to get anything done is to understand what rules Roundworld runs on.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The Thaum Reactor was built for the purpose of creating more heat for the University in winter (The Senior Faculty were lukewarm on the subject of knowledge, but boiling hot when it came to frosty windows). The reactor ends up working too well- just before Hex channels the excessive magic into the Roundworld Project, the college becomes so hot that Ridcully dreams he's lost in a broiling desert, only to find reality no different in temperature.
  • Got Volunteered: How Rincewind becomes Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography in the first place; he's dragged in front of the assembled senior wizards and told he can't refuse the job, nor can he resign. Happens again at the end of the first book. He's told that while, yes, going into the High Energy Magic building, which is filled with ludicrous and potentially deadly amounts of energy, is dangerous, it's not as dangerous as not going might be, hint hint.
  • "How Did You Know?" "I Didn't.": Happens when the Dean sticks his hand into the nascent Roundworld project:
    "That was a really very foolish thing you just did," said Ridcully. "How did you know that it wasn't dangerous?"
    "I didn't," said the Dean cheerfully. "It feels... cool. And rather chilly. Prickly, in a funny sort of way."
  • Incredibly Lame Fun: Rincewind's first appearance in book 2 has him sorting rocks (which the previous incumbent of the position of Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography had left unsorted). Since it's utterly dull, Rincewind's having a whale of a time.
  • In Defence of Storytelling: The whole of book 2. Humans need stories to be human.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Apparently, if Darwin had become a believer in what we'd now call "intelligent design", Richard Dawkins would have been the author of The Origin Of Species, sadly too late to make a difference. So Dawkins would be a Darwinist even if Darwin wasn't.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Rincewind repeatedly puts a fish back into the water, not realizing it's adapting to life on land rather than trying to kill itself.
  • Insult to Rocks: In book III, Ridicully notes that Ponder's explanations are so easy first that even wizards can understand them, and later, professors.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The wizards do this a lot, first claiming that planets are no place for life, that the sea is only place for a intelligent creature, that the primates will never amount to anything, and so on.
    • Also, that the "terribly dull lizards" would never catch anyone's interest, such that any accounts of Roundworld prehistory will most likely skip over their era.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • In the one of the science chapters in the first book, the narration notes that Rincewind's speech on how meaningless it is to build a life on Roundworld is with its tendency to destroy any civilization with giant snowballs and other disasters, while we might find it harsh, makes sense. Rincewind has seen the Roundworld on a far grander scale than any native has, so while we might enjoy living on it at the moment, the same could be said about the dinosaurs. Just ask them; You can't, can you. That's the point.
    • Late in the first book, as the wizards ruminate on Roundworld's history, Rincewind makes a cutting remark. Ridicully curtly informs him "that remark was incredibly cynical and accurate".
  • Lies to Children: The Trope Namer. In the fiction sections, Ponder describes his thaumic reactor to the other faculty using Lies-To-Wizards, and Hex's reports mainly consist of Lies-To-People.
  • Logic Bomb: Ridicully manages to inflict one of these on a mass of Auditors at the end of Book III.
  • Mage in Manhattan
  • Magic Versus Science: The Roundworld Project's original intention was to create a place where magic could not exist, which was thought to be impossible.
  • Magitek: Hex of course, and the Thaumic Engine is the magical equivalent of a nuclear reactor (going back to Pratchett's roots, as he made many similar comparisons in The Colour of Magic).
  • Measuring the Marigolds: Averted in the science parts of the books.
  • Mondegreen: Discussed in one of the science sections in the second book, when they bring up how our brains fill in the blanks in our sensory data by putting what we have seen and heard in a context.
    This is why we can get the words of songs completely wrong and not realise it. The Guardian newspaper ran an amusing section on this habit, with examples such as 'kit-kat angel' for 'kick-ass angel' — bit of a generation gap there, which underlines how our perceptions are biased by our expectations. Ian recalls an Annie Lennox song that really went 'a garden overgrown with trees', but always sounded like 'I'm getting overgrown with fleas'.
    • Amusingly enough, he's still wrong. The actual lyric is 'I'm thrown and overblown with bliss'.
  • The Monolith: Parodied with the Dean's chalkboard-assisted lesson to the apes.
  • Mythology Gag: Among the quotations at the beginning of the third book is Preserved J. Nightingale's version of Paley's "watch" quote, supposedly from a text called Watches Abroad.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Rincewind initially tries to dress down for a visit to Georgian London, believing nakedness is the universal dress code. Ridicully won't have any of it.
  • Never Learned to Read: Elves don't read. Elves get other people to read for them.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The wizards foil the elves from enslaving mankind, but this means humans without any real human-ness.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: The Wizards nearly foil their plan in "The Globe" by teaching Shakespear "The Hedgehog Song". But the Queen of Elves, under the assumption that the Wizards are trying to stop Shakespear from writing A Midsummer Night's Dream, using her powers to strip the song from William's mind.
  • No More for Me: When Rincewind trudges up out of the primordial ocean onto the primordial beach, the narration notes that many religions have been inspired by the image of a person emerging from the sea, but this particular vision would be unlikely to inspire anything except a desire to avoid strong drink in future.
    • An emaciated ragged man with a straggly-ill-kept beard and a haunted expression staggering out of the sea fixated on completing a mission. It's possibly a Shout-Out? Or a Homage?
  • No Name Given: Reaches its climax here, with the wizards even naming elements things like "Runium" and "Wranglium" after their titles rather than their actual (unknown) names.
  • Noodle Implements: While preparing for Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Wizards run into various problems that Ridcully solves via a set of noodle implements. Most of the time the reader can easily figure out what he is going to do with them (The sole exception being related to a folk remedy that is explained in one of the science chapters).
  • "Not Important to This Episode" Camp: The Bursar is absent in book 2, being off with his aunt.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Nightingale's plays are sort of like Shakespeare's, but for a variety of reasons just not as good.
  • No True Scotsman: Used by the non-fiction section in book 2, describing the scientist the wizards meet. The non-fiction section says he isn't a real scientist, on the basis of falling into despair after proving his precursor wrong - a true scientist would kill for a chance to prove something wrong.
  • Nu Speling: The glimpse of humanity's future at the end of the first book includes such spellings as "alaam" for "alarm", "maetnans" for "maintenance", and "emerjansi" for "emergency".
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: The Librarian is able to disguise himself as a Spaniard via a large dress. Since the wizards are in Elizabethan London, it's enough. In Victorian London, Ridicully figures with the right hat and jacket he'd be able to become Prime Minister.
  • Parodic Table of the Elements: It's the standard table, except with extra space for narrativium and octium.
  • Reading the Stage Directions Out Loud: In Darwin's Watch, Hex makes several dramatic announcements to the wizards, and says the words "pause for dramatic effect" before saying the last word. Ponder eventually tells him that he doesn't need to do that.
  • Retcon: The first book uses 'splitting the thaum' as a magical equivalent of 'splitting the atom'. In previous books, thaums were just an arbitrary measurement of magic (and with the competing Prime system) rather than the smallest possible unit of magic.
  • Retgone: What would've happened if the experiment had gone wrong. It wouldn't have just blown up the Discworld, it would've destroyed reality entirely so that it never happened. Since Ponder was alive to turn the thing on, he reasoned it probably just happened to some other unfortunate sods in another timeline.
  • Running Gag: In the second and third volumes, the Wizards find history has been meddled with and someone surnamed Nightingale has been inserted into a place someone else (William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin, respectively) should have been in.
  • Science Marches On: Chapter 10 of Book Four illustrates the nature of science by devoting some space to the theories the first book favoured about the formation of the moon and the origins of life, and explaining why they're probably wrong after all. invoked
  • Serious Business: On the Disc, the origins of the warning label "may contain nuts" came about because the Patrician takes food hygiene warning very seriously, and asked the wizards to help determine whether or not packing would contain nuts. He wasn't entirely satisfied with their answer that they couldn't conclusively prove that it did or did not.
  • Shout-Out: In book 3, the Dean re-enacts that scene from Dirty Harry. The Auditor he's against is smugly sure he's got no chocolate left... then Dead fills it full of nougat (and admits, actually, he wasn't sure he had any left).
  • Sistine Steal: The first book includes a scene where the Librarian (a wizard transformed into an orangutan) is magically searching for information about evolution and accidentally ends up in Charles Darwin's study while he's in the middle of writing On the Origin of Species. The resulting scene is not illustrated, but one can imagine what it would look like if it were.
    "What manner of shade are you...?"
    A hand reached out, tremulously. Feeling that something was expected of him, the Librarian reached out as well, and the tips of the fingers touched.
  • Sitcom Archnemesis: The Unseen University and those bastards at Braseneck University. One of the advantages of having a Very Big Thing is that it's better than Braseneck's.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Ridicully's intelligence rears its head in book 1, when he notes, after Ponder supposedly turns the machine on, that he never would've done so in front of the wizards unless he was sure it actually worked. In fact, the machine had been turned on earlier, at breakfast.
  • Space Elevator: One appears in Book One. In the later books, the wizards' goal is the continued existence of a timeline that contains it.
  • Spotting the Thread: In Book 3, Hex starts noticing the sheer amount of events going on that prevent Darwin from writing Origin of the Species, and comes to the conclusion someone is doing so deliberately.
  • This Is Reality: The Fairy Queen's gloat to the Wizard in book 2, basically. On Roundworld, a king's third son is just a lazy prince, and an old woman isn't a witch, just an inexpensive means of keeping the fire going a little longer. It's their world, not the Wizards'.
  • Time Abyss: The elves and their Queen invade Roundworld in the time of early hominids, and are still hanging around in Elizabethan times. And one of the regular elves is mentioned as having outlived several Queens and preyed upon many previous worlds' inhabitants, which suggests it's witnessed multiple sentient species' complete evolutionary history.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: It's revealed in the fourth book that because Roundworld and Discworld are connected by L-Space, they've influenced each others' mythologies, meaning that when the wizards created Roundworld, they inadvertently altered their own history to create the Omnian doctrine of a spherical world.
  • Try to Fit THAT on a Business Card!: By the beginning of book 2, Rincewind has accumulated seven different titles (on the provision that he in no way act like this grants him any authority within the university whatsoever).
  • Welcome to the Real World
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: The wizards experience this in The Science of Discworld II after they spend the night drinking with William Shakespeare. Rincewind is the only one who can remember everything they did, and wishes he hadn't.
  • The World Is Always Doomed: In the first book, the wizards become discouraged when Roundworld is repeatedly (As in, every several million years or so), hit by a large comet or asteroid.
  • Wretched Hive: Rincewind's opinion of 16th century London - like Ankh-Morpork, but worse.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Early in the Project, millions of years pass in Roundworld for every Discworld day. Later, Hex takes control of time's passage within the artificial universe, and can subvert, avert, invert or play this trope straight at will.
  • Zany Scheme: The wizards' interventions. Particularly the Noodle Implements-heavy one in volume 2, where they invoke various folk remedies to ensure William Shakespeare is born a boy.

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