Thursday, 30 December 2004

The Fabric of the Cosmos – Brian Greene *****

Subtitled “space, time and the texture of reality”, this could be seen as yet another book trying to do all of science – but it’s more finely tuned than that – and a much better read than most of the “tell you everything” books. In fact, what Brian Greene tries to do, and largely succeeds in, is explaining the two great underlying theories of science, both developed in the twentieth century – relativity and quantum theory – then extending beyond them to the nature of time and the composition and origins of the universe.
The first section of the book concentrates on relativity (mostly special, but quickly filling in general) and quantum theory. From there we pick up a description of what time is, whether “time’s arrow” is a realistic context, and how time slots into the quantum arena. The third section is more cosmologically oriented, spending a fair amount of space on the big bang and quantum fluctuations. Then we get onto the current preferred theories of matter – string theory and its extension to bring in “branes”. Although string theory has a lot of supporters it is pure hypothesis and very likely to disappear in the future – watch out, though for some more experimentally based gems like the remarkable and often ignored Casimir force. Finally there’s a summary “what’s it all about” section, including a delightful chapter on teleporters and time machines.
Taken individually, the subjects covered in each of the first four sections could be (and are) enough material to make a good book in their own right. There’s enough here, though to get a grip on what’s involved, and the interested reader should then go on to read a book with more detail on the individual section topics. The great thing about the way Greene has written this book is that it’s never overwhelming, yet there’s an opportunity to see how it all fits together (at least as much as it does all fit together in current theory – while those underlying aspects of relativity and quantum theory are solid, it all gets more speculative as you get further in). Although it’s quite a long book – over 500 pages with the notes and index – it doesn’t feel all that long, which is a great mercy. All too often others who have attempted books on this scale have produced tomes that are more effective as doorstops than as readable popular science.
There are some minor disappointments. Greene is a great popular science writer who pitches it just right, but occasionally his popularism is a little forced, for example in his use of characters from TV shows like the Simpsons and the X Files to illustrate his example. (The use, for example, of a duel between Itchy and Scratchy in his relatively section is a bit cringe making.) The book is beautifully illustrated, but occasionally these graphics get in the way of the facts. It’s a bit like when someone first gets hold of 3D graphics in a spreadsheet, and suddenly everything is 3D – some of the points would have been much clearer with a boring old two dimensional line diagram, rather than fancy 3D shading that gets in the way of the information the diagram is supposed to put across.
Even so, this is a strong entry from Greene, and certainly one of the best popular science books of 2004.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 20 December 2004

Leaps in the Dark – John Waller ****

This is a very good book, which impressed me very much. I have to get this rather bland positive statement in up front, as otherwise I’d start with what sounds like a negative remark, and this isn’t a negative review. John Waller relishes shattering our illusions. He’s the sort of person who tells you that Robin Hood, if he ever existed at all, was an unpleasant murderer with B.O. Or that Richard III was really a good, well-meaning king, and all the stuff about hump backs and princes in the Tower was fictional propaganda put about by the Lancastrians to justify their coup.
The reason this sort of bubble bursting is painful is that we like our stories. We exist on stories – and the best popular science has a good story at its heart. But, and here’s where we fall into line with Waller, bearing in mind we are talking about science, we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm for a good story get in the way of the truth. Yes, let’s enjoy our history of science, and make it about real people, but not about mythical characters.
Waller points out the strong tendency to push scientists, just as much as any other character in history, into black and white, stark contrasts. So we have the bad guys, the fools, like Joseph Glanvill, the member of the Royal Society who tried to prove that witches existed scientifically, or Max von Pettenkofer, who was so convinced that cholera didn’t spread by pure bacterial infection that he swallowed a whole flask of the bacteria (and survived). Not to mention the good guys, the heroes like Isaac Newton with his stunning flash of genius in performing the experiment that showed white light was composed of a mix of the colours separated by a prism.
Reality, as you might guess, is rarely like that. Waller shows us how the much maligned Glanvill, for instance, was using the best scientific method of the day, even though he came up with the wrong result. And how Newton’s discovery was more a matter of him sticking to a theory despite experimental evidence, as it was only later that optical prisms could be made well enough to prove what he asserted.
It’s nothing new to hear that science mostly consists of small, incremental and often very shaky steps forward, and is sometimes helped along by mistakes – but Waller really hammers this home in a way that hasn’t been done before. at least for a general audience. It’s absolutely amazing, if a little chastening, to see some legends of science prove to be just that – legends. Waller’s book doesn’t mean there aren’t big steps forward in science, or works of genius, even from individuals like Newton, but it does mean that we can see them in a more realistic light.
Because this is such an important topic in understanding science and where it comes from, Leaps in the Dark is a highly recommended book. It mostly reads very well, too. It’s held back from five stars because it just occasionally suffers a little from academic pomposity, and in the end, the man’s a spoilsport. But a realistic spoilsport.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 24 October 2004

Brainwashing – Kathleen Taylor ****

Here we see a prime example of that rarest of species – a book that is both academic and readable. It makes no concessions on content, yet Kathleen Taylor writes well enough to keep the attention of the interested lay person.
The topic is a controversial one. “Does brainwashing even exist?” is a legitimate question – but you’ll have to read the book to find the answer.
This isn’t a “true crimes”, “revel in real human horror stories” type book, but the first section does contain a few rather unsettling case studies as it reveals examples that could be labelled brainwashing. Taylor is catholic in her coverage, though – as well as explicit attempts to brainwash by totalitarian military regimes you will find religious cults, advertising and even the apparently innocent activity of education.
The book is in three sections. The first examines the different activities that could be and/or are described as brainwashing, the second examines the brain itself, its surprising fluidity and the different activities and mechanisms that could be the subject of attempts at thought control, and the final section looks at the possible future developments in brainwashing, and whether it is possible to have strategies for resistance.
Few criticisms can be raised here. Surprisingly, one of these might be that Taylor is too scrupulously fair – so a lot of statements are bordered around by qualifications and “excepts” and “despites”, which is honest but breaks up the flow of a good read. It’s also a long book – only around 300 pages, but of tight-packed, smallish text – and for the lay reader she probably goes into too much detail on the workings of the brain. That’s really all that comes between this book and a five star rating.
One of the best things about reading Brainwashing is Taylor’s light touch with language – she really does write as if a real person is sharing with you something that fascinates her, and she knows you will be interested in too. It’s a delight. Also Taylor is quite happy to take on some heavyweights for their oversimplifying – you might even say brainwashing – approach in putting across a scientific message. So for example, she points out how Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore misinterpret the idea of faith by associating its dangers with religion, thus blundering into blaming religion for most of the world’s woes without considering how totally religion-free inter-human disasters from the Chinese cultural revolution to Nazi Germany have been even more destructive. Taylor isn’t supporting religion, but rather pointing out the over-dependence on simplistic views that is a common feature of brainwashing, and that is being incorrectly used to put down religion here – her standpoint should be obvious, but it takes guts to oppose names like Dawkins and Blackmore.
Altogether a thoughtful, insightful and thoroughly well-written book on a subject that is often mentioned but rarely understood.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 15 October 2004

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin *****

This has to be one of John Gribbin’s best pure science (as opposed to science/biography) books, and has stood the test of time surprisingly well since being written in 1984. Although some of the implications and developments of quantum theory, notably quantum entanglement, have moved on a lot in more recent years, the basics of quantum theory, which this book covers, still apply, as does the historical context which Gribbin does well here.
The cat in question is the one used by German physicist Erwin Schrödinger as an illustration of just how strange (and unlikely) the whole idea of quantum theory was. Because of the way quantum particles that can be in two states simultaneously until they are observed and randomly become one or the other, Schrödinger envisaged a cat in a box that would live or die dependent on a random quantum event. The suggestion was that, until the box was opened, the cat would be both dead and alive at the same time.
It’s probably the best known image from the quantum world, which is rather a pity, as it was intended to demonstrate the inadequacy of the theory, but in practice misrepresents it at anything more than a trivial level. Though there may be arguments about the workings and interpretation of quantum theory, it stubbornly refuses to be dismissed, matching observed effects with impressive consistency.
Quantum theory isn’t easy to explain in a way that is accessible to any reader, and Gribbin isn’t always the world’s best populariser because he does have a tendency to descend into supposedly helpful examples that can be rather baffling, but this book general avoids that trap remains one of the best attempts at getting across the whole astounding business. Liable to leave your head spinning, but that’s not a bad thing.
It might seem a rather petty complaint, but the Black Swan (UK) paperback reviewed was physically decidely poor – coarse paper and printing (with too little space between the lines of text) – it doesn’t change the content, but does detract something from the reading experience!
Gribbin wrote a sequel, Schrödinger’s Kittens, in 1994 which attempts to bring the picture up-to-date. This is rather less successful, in part as up-to-dateness doesn’t last, and in part because it’s not so well structured. Still some interesting points, though.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 5 October 2004

The Third Man of the Double Helix – Maurice Wilkins ****

This is a stunningly powerful insight into the workings of real science, and particularly of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the only reason it doesn’t have our ultimate five star accolade is that Wilkins is at best a pedestrian writer, and would have benefited hugely from a co-author.
If you ignore the preface, the worst written part of the book, and skip quickly through Wilkins early life, which has little in the way of useful insights and has all the stilted lack of humanity of a 1950s newsreel (for example “Their gramophone filled their home with humorous songs, such as George Formby, with his banjo, singing (with amusing innuendo) When I’m Cleaning Windows.”), you have a chance to see the very gradual, mistake-ridden, back-biting ride that is the reality of scientific discovery.
Inevitably most fascinating is the relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, the less lionised half of the DNA quartet. Mention the discovery of the structure of DNA and two names immediately spring to mind – Crick and Watson. This is forgetting (hence the title of the book) the fact that Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize, and made the essential that would lead to that famous double helix first.
After Crick and Watson, the next name likely to occur to anyone is that Rosalind Franklin. She has in recent years been picked out as the victim of the male-dominated world’s attempts to suppress the work of a female scientist. As Wilkins says himself: “one side effect was that Rosalind’s male colleagues were to some extent demonised.” It certainly is unfortunate that the Nobel rules only allow a maximum of three recipients for the prize – showing it to be totally out-of-date when applied to modern science – and Franklin would have made a worthy fourth, but it seems quite likely that fourth is the correct position to put her in, and given the rules there was little other choice.
Wilkins’ book exposes a flawed three-way relationship that almost inevitably brought about confusion and resentment. Wilkins’ boss, Professor John Randall loomed over much of his career, helping Wilkins ahead, but at the same time often seeming jealous of any possibility that Wilkins could succeed independently. When Randall brought Franklin in, he told her that Wilkins was going to stop X-ray diffraction work (X-ray photography was Franklin’s speciality) and go back to using microscopes – only no one seems to have told Wilkins this. This set Wilkins and Franklin off on the wrong foot, as she felt that he was trespassing on her territory (never mind that he had made a significant discovery using X-rays before she even started work on DNA). Add to this Wilkins’ obvious difficulty with interacting with women and Franklin’s unusually strong sense of individual ownership in what should have been a shared project and the inevitable outcome was a human conflict that makes the story of DNA so much more entertaining and gripping.
We’ve had this story from about every direction now. It’s good that Maurice Wilkins has weighed in with his version, if only to balance the one-sidedness of some of the books that take Rosalind Franklin’s side. As much as Feynman writing about the atomic bomb project, this is an essential piece of first person observation from the heart of one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever. Hopefully it’s less fictional than Feynman’s tales, even if lacking his prose style – either way it is history from the coal face.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 1 October 2004

Big Bang – Simon Singh *****

The cover of this big book is rather disconcerting. It looks like a pack of washing powder. And like all the best washing powder, it is splashed with a remarkable claim: “The most important scientific discovery of all time and why you need to know about it.”
All I can say about that is don’t be put off by it! It’s very hard to see anything in cosmology could ever be “the most important discovery”, as to be honest it’s not going to do an awful lot to change anyone’s life. It may well be the most fundamental discovery – and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, but surely not most important. And for that matter, do we really need to know about it? Well, no. But that’s not the point of popular science. It’s about the delight of discovery, the wonder of a very wonderful universe – in terms of need-to-know it’s in the “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” class.
HOWEVER this is all the packaging, and I stress that you shouldn’t let it put you off the contents, because this is one of the best popular science books of the year. It’s page-turning readable, it’s enjoyable and it is pitched just right to provide plenty of knowledge and that essential wonder without baffling. Simon Singh has confirmed his position as one of the top science popularisers alive.
The aim of the book is to help us understand what the Big Bang is all about. Singh takes the reader back to the earliest theories of the universe and gradually builds to the present day with plenty of enjoyable excursions. Just occasionally the historical ventures don’t feel quite right – Galileo, for instance, is so well documented that a pocket biography feels uncomfortably restrictive and there’s something odd about the description of how Einstein came to conceive of Special Relativity, but these are tiny niggles. It looks like it’s going to be too long as well, but this is an illusion. They’ve used quite big print, unusually well spaced, perhaps because a “big” subject needed a big book or even (God help us) because the success of Bryson’s doorstop of a book has started a trend towards big fat popular science.
It’s a delight to find out more about the renegade cosmologist Fred Hoyle, both as a person and as a genius. Hoyle’s outspoken views (a Yorkshireman – need we say more) and refreshing tendency to come out with original and exciting ideas without too much concern about whether or not they are right have tended to obscure what a big contribution he made to the understanding of stellar formation of the elements and cosmology, despite backing the wrong horse on the Big Bang versus Steady State controversy.
Singh leads us beautifully through the Big Bang’s transit from vague theory to one that was almost universally (sorry) accepted, finishing with the impact of the cosmic background radiation studies, particularly the results from the COBE satellite. The supporters of the alternative Steady State theory would throw up one last alternative, but there was little enthusiasm for it: Big Bang had won.
One last thought – if you’re reading it in public, you might like to reassure everyone in a loud voice “it’s about the origin of the universe” – or the title might make them suspect you of reading something a little less salubrious. But whatever you do, read it – this is a great popular science book from a master of the craft. If it whets your appetite and you want to read further on the origins of the universe and matter, consider going on to Marcus Chown’s excellent cosmological duo, Afterglow of Creation and the Magic Furnace.
Review by Brian Clegg

Magic Universe – Nigel Calder ****

On the whole we haven’t much time for big, fat, everything you ever wanted to know about science in alphabetical order books. A dictionary or encyclopaedia of science may be useful, but it’s hard to see it as popular science.
Nigel Calder’s book is quite different. Admittedly, it does still have a structure that’s based on the alphabetic order of the articles, but that apart each is readable in its own right, providing an engaging and enthusiastic introduction to that particular topic. You might have to be an übergeek to sit in bed and read an encyclopaedia article each night, but it would be very easy to use these as effective bedtime stories for adults, or something to take in on the train to work (provided your wrists can cope with the hefty 756 pages – seriously this is a heavy book, even in the paperback version).
Wherever you look there’s something that little bit different. The entry on the The Big Bang, for instance, begins with a comment from the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto number 3. Why? You’ll have to read it to find out. Dipping in randomly I can see articles on Biodiversity, DNA Fingerprinting, Hopeful Monsters, Prions, Speech and Starbursts. Where to start? It might be dull, but why not at the beginning.
Whether you are a total beginner to the science business or a season reader of popular science, you’ll find something to interest you here. Calder has done an impossibly good job in undertaking the impossible task of surveying modern science. The only reason it doesn’t get the full five stars is that its very nature makes it too long and lacking in flow to be a real popular science book. However, for anyone with an interest in science who perhaps wants some ideas on new directions to read more deeply, it’s a great primer. There’s a lot to be said for a book that eases you into areas you don’t normally bother with. And whatever your interest or expertise, the breadth of content of this book pretty well guarantees you’ll get some enjoyable surprises.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 30 September 2004

Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman – James Gleick ****

Richard Feynman was both one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century (what the heck, one of the greatest scientists ever!) and was also a complex and not always likeable character.
This fat biography isn’t Gleick’s best book, but it does make a better job of integrating the story of Feyman’s life and scientific work than the competing volume by John and Mary Gribbin which tends to alternate chunks of history and chunks of science. Gleick makes you work harder to understand what’s going on, but on the whole it’s worth the work.
He’s less successful when he gets all philosophical – for instance the rather tedious section where he tries to analyse genius. (He will also get up the nose of plenty of readers by dismissing, for instance, Mozart’s genius. I’m not that fond of Mozart’s music myself, but can’t fail to recognise the genius of someone who could go to the Sistine Chapel and hear Allegri’s amazing Miserere (the chapel choir’s secret weapon at the time) once, then write it down later note perfect. Gleick misses the point that the man’s genius was about more than knocking up a good tune which might later fall out of fashion. But this book isn’t about music, so enough said.
What comes across superbly in this book is something that hasn’t really been shown in any of the other Feynman books we’ve covered – a real feeling for the slow (and sometimes frustrating) build of a theory, rather than being presented whole and complete.
As was the case with Gleick’s biography of Newton, this book really isn’t enough on its own. It’s well worth coupling it with at the very least Feyman’s superb tales (well improved though they may be in) in Surely You Must be Joking Mr Feynman – and if you’re feeling brave also Feynman’s book QED that will really explain one aspect of the science that Gleick can only hint at. It may also be worth reading the Gribbin book to get a rounder picture, but if you are only going to read one popular science biography of Feynman, this is the one.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 29 September 2004

Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug – Diarmuid Jeffreys ****

Sometimes the subject of a popular science book is obvious – a topic like the human genome or the big bang leaps out as something we will want to know about. But every now and then a book comes along on a topic that really isn’t something you’ve ever thought about, yet the treatment makes it fascinating. That’s the case with this book – which in one way is a shame, because it may not rush off the shelf. Who wants to read a book about aspirin, you might think. Answer: you do, it’s great!
Like all the best popular science, this isn’t so much a book about aspirin as a book about the people that made aspirin possible, the circumstances that led to aspirin and a whole lot of associated stuff that’s just fascinating. Along the way you will meet an Oxfordshire parson chewing tree bark (life can be quite boring in Oxfordshire) and a gifted New Zealander who brought modern advertising zest to selling aspirin, first in Australia, then around the world.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of the story aren’t about aspirin itself. It’s finding out that heroin was a trademark of the same company that named aspirin (and heroin was intended to be a cough medicine, safe even for infants), or the origins of some of the great contenders to the aspirin throne like paracetamol (acetaminophen) and ibruprufen.
At the heart of the book, though is aspirin’s rise and rise, from being seen as a cheap alternative to quinine, through its heyday as a painkiller to its modern use in countering heart disease.
Jeffreys gets the balance just right. You find out about the business struggles amongst the early pharmaceutical companies (when aspirin was first manufactured they hardly existed), about the scientific breakthroughs and the medical surprises. His style is enjoyable, the book a triumph on a subject that few would think worthy of covering.
Good stuff indeed. Don’t you feel the need to take an Aspirin (or at least to read one)?
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 25 September 2004

Electric Universe – David Bodanis ****

We need to admit straight up that the four star rating is a bit of a fudge. This is both a three star book and a five star book!
If we had a category for teen readers it would make five stars. As an adult book, it would only get three. Outcome – the fudged four.
The book is about electricity in various different forms and manifestations, with all kinds of ventures off into interesting snippets and side alleys.
Why’s it a great teen book? Because it communicates great enthusiasm for the subject. It really does make an exciting, page turning read. It never dives into any technical complication, it brings in fascinating characters and the presentation is high energy all the way. In fact it’s a natural successor to the best of the Horrid Science books and the like that we recommend in our children’s section for up to thirteen/fourteen-year-olds.
Why the hesitation for adults? There have been too many compromises made in order to give it that oomph. It’s more like the taster provided by a TV show than a good popular science book – it’s just too shallow. That energy is conveyed in an exhausting barrage of superlatives and emphatic words. Electric current doesn’t flow, it rushes, roars, rampages and generally thunders along the wire. The same problem applies to the people – the biographical sketches lack the depth of characterisation we expect in an adult book. Sometimes the simplicity is revealing; at other times it’s misleading. For instance Edison is wholly credited with the electric light bulb with no mention of the fact that Swann’s getting there first was proved in court when Edison sued Swann for breach of patent and ended up having to give Swann half his company.
The book is divided into five main parts that portray electricity through wires (around telegraphs, telephone and mains electricity), waves (Faraday’s work and jokily back to the telegraph for under the waves in the amazing transatlantic cable), wireless “electricity” (i.e. electromagnetism, and specifically radar), computing and the transistor, and bioelectricity. Each of these parts has fascinating insights and revelations to intrigue. The radar section was particularly enticing in its portrayal of a remarkable raid on a German radar station to discover how their version of the technology worked.
Some concerns remain. Bodanis tells us that there was no electronics before the transistor (many pages later he mentions valves, but only as a half way house) – that’s verging on lying to make a point. Valves are electronic devices. What he really means is that electronics had to be solid state to change the world, but that’s not the same thing. And the emphasis given to the electric field, while useful to counteract its frequent absence from simple descriptions, goes too far in the way it totally dominates. These concerns are real, but shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a superbly approachable book.
It’s great, then, for younger readers – but it could have retained the energy and enthusiasm for the teens while also appealing more to discerning adults if Bodanis hadn’t doubted the ability of his readers to cope with a little more depth.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 30 August 2004

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins ****

This is a superb answer to the old statement by Paley that (to paraphrase) he isn’t surprised when he finds a stone on the beach, but if he finds a watch on the beach then he reasonably deduces the existence of a watchmaker, because simple natural processes aren’t going to knock naturally available components into a functioning watch. That being the case, the argument goes, our own existence proves that there is a creator.
As Dawkins shows, this simply isn’t true. The assumption can only be made in ignorance of the sheer timescale available to evolutionary forces, and that small changes that do occur naturally can, over many generations, result in the development of something complex, provided those changes are advantageous.
Dawkins also superbly demolishes the “a partial eye is no use” argument that says we would never end up with eyes because all the intermediate steps don’t have value. It’s simply not true. There are plenty of creatures out there with almost every intermediate stage of eye. For that matter, if the eye was truly designed it has some very strange design faults, that seem natural in an evolutionary development, but not otherwise.
This is such an important book that it’s surprising in doesn’t have the full five stars – unfortunately, while the arguments are superb, there are some aspects of Dawkins himself that come through that make it a less than perfect book. Firstly there’s the aggressive style. At one point he moans about how the media, at every opportunity, lay into neo-Darwinists like him if there’s any sign of dissent. Can’t he see this is because they write the most unprofessional books? A cosmologist might write a book that challenges someone’s religious beliefs, but he would do so in a purely scientific fashion. The biologists (and Dawkins isn’t the worst) seem to delight in upsetting others by not just putting forward the facts but openly attacking religious beliefs in what is supposed to be a scientific book. They also attack each other – now all scientists do this, but other disciplines have less of a tendency to go for the jugular in such an unpleasant way.
The other problem is Dawkins’ writing style is a little old fashioned and pompous (you just know even before he does it that he is going to refer to pop music as ‘popular music’, including those quote marks. Some of the chapters are skip-makingly tedious, while others are a delight to read – he really would have done better with a co-author. Even so, this doesn’t take away the significance of the message – it’s just a shame that the way it’s done will put off those who could benefit most from it.
Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 28 August 2004

After the Ice: A global human history 20,000 to 5,000 BC – Steven Mithen ****

If the sole determining quality of a book was scope, this would come top of the charts – it attempts to take in the whole world between the end of the ice age and the neolithic. It’s a noble attempt and in many ways very successful. (That sounds like a sentence that is going to be followed by a “but” – and there is a “but” later on, but let’s concentrate on what’s in it and why it’s good first.)
First, though, we do need to ask “why is this book here (on the Popular Science site) at all?” It is an archaeological history, and though archaeology is a scientific discipline, it is not normally classified as science – in fact the publisher’s classification on the back of the book describes it as history. Yet it has a lot to say about the origins of modern man, and as such we can probably classify it under our “human science” biological categorization – I can only assume that’s why it got listed for the Aventis Prize. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have appeared here, which would have been a shame because it’s a book that will stay with me for a long time.
The cunning trick Steven Mithen uses to take us into the post ice-age world, is to put a virtual observer, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian writer on the subject), who experiences first hand what is going on at prehistoric sites at the time they were occupied. Then Mithen pulls back from Lubbock’s “experience” and tells us about the actual finds that it is based on. This works marvellously well, rather like a reconstructional TV documentary like Walking with Dinosaurs, without anywhere as much of the guesswork presented as fact in those shows. Occasionally Mithen varies the technique, at one point bringing Lubbock forward to the 1970s to witness a particular discovery being made.
The only problem with this approach is that Lubbock’s nature varies. He appears to be human and corporeal – he eats – and he takes part in helping the people of the period, yet it said elsewhere that he can’t be seen. Despite his apparent humanity, at one point he stands in one place for 1,000 years. Now Mithen might argue it doesn’t matter what Lubbock does, it’s a fictional concept. Lubbock travels backwards and forwards in time, for goodness sake. But once you give flesh to a character like this, the reader has every right to expect some consistency, and to be thrown by the opposite. Perhaps Lubbock should have been a robot, like Marvin in Hitchiker’s Guide, who at one point stays in the same place for millions of years.
The other problem with the book as a whole is that it’s so long! There are 511 pages in smallish print before reaching the notes. Just occasionally you feel, like Lubbock, that you seem to have been in there for a thousand years. Especially as, after a while, it all gets rather the same. And sometimes you want to know what happened after. It might not have done what Mithen inteded, but it would have made a more readable book if he had concentrated on two or three areas, and followed through all of prehistory, stopping at the point recorded history was available for that area.
The length doesn’t stop it being a magnificent work, though – and that it certainly is.
Review by Brian Clegg