Friday, 30 April 2004

Sex, Botany & Empire – Patricia Fara ****

It’s tempting to call this book a little gem. Despite being written by an academic, it’s an easy read and fulfils the promise of the title admirably. For most of us in the UK or the US, Joseph Banks is an unknown character. Australians will know him much better, as he was also largely responsible for the founding of the penal colony that would eventually become a great nation. Banks was present on Cook’s voyage of scientific discovery and imperial plunder, and traded on this ‘expertise’ for the rest of his life.
So it is a good book – a gem indeed – but I still felt somewhat let down because of the other key word in that description – little. This is the shortest full-priced popular science book I have ever come across. Not only is it small – this hardback is about the size of a mass market paperback – its 157 main pages are in large print. In fact it seems an almost deliberate attempt to clone Longitude – both very short books about a little-known figure who made a small but significant contribution to scientific history without really being scientists.
It’s actually stretching things a little to call this popular science, as there is hardly any science in it. It’s more a compact biography of a man who was a powerful scientific administrator (as well as a political force). This doesn’t take away the fact that Banks is a fascinating subject (despite the title, it is about Banks – Linnaeus is really just a reference point). Mocked for his sexual adventures on Tahiti and for being an effete dabbler, he nonetheless managed to take control of the Royal Society for 40 years, proved a major influence on the adoption of the Linnaean classification structure, changed the sheep breeding world and was responsible for Australia becoming the UK’s preferred prison destination. Can you resist?
Review by Jo Reed

Sunday, 25 April 2004

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking *****

The one that started it all – at least the phenomenal interest in popular science books. Hawking’s media presence from Star Trek TNG to BT adverts does nothing to trivialize this remarkable book. It’s one of a very few books in this category that continues to fascinate despite the fact that much of its contents stretch the reader further than is usually expected in a book of this sort.
To be honest, this reviewer avoided the book for many years for two reasons.
The first, which really wasn’t justified, was that this was so much a book that ‘everyone is buying’ that it seemed the cool thing to do to avoid it altogether. If that was your excuse too, it has now had plenty of time to stop being trendy, so you’ve no excuse for not getting it.
The other reason it seemed worth avoiding was its reputation as a book that rivalled Joyce’s Ulysses as one that most people never managed to get through because, trendy though it was, it’s almost impenetrable. If this is your reason for avoiding the book – you (like me) were wrong. It simply isn’t true.
Hawking starts remarkably gently, and though some of the contents are baffling in the small scale, provided you accept the standard undergraduate approach of nodding wisely and continuing whether or not you understand the fine detail, you will find that it fills in nicely with only a few gaps left. The most baffling bit is probably the section on light cones, which he doesn’t explain very well, and this may well have turned people off before they got further. He goes on to give some really quite approachable summaries of quantum theory, particle physics and the physics of black holes. I just wish he wouldn’t use so many exclamation marks!
I think the difficult reputation itself reflects the way this book started a trend. The fact is, in modern popular science terms, while not an easy read, it’s quite acceptable – in fact just at the right level. If there’s one small doubt it’s the suspicion that the few autobiographical comments, interesting though they are, are thrown in at the instance of an editor saying ‘put something in about yourself, Stephen, that’ll keep them going.’
The fact remains that this book deserves its place on every popular science shelf, not as a trophy or an icon, but as a fascinating, enjoyable read.
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 9 April 2004

The Universe Next Door – Marcus Chown *****

The universe is a strange place. A very strange place. And Marcus Chown’s book is a great way to find out just how amazingly, mind-bogglingly, wonderfully strange it is.
By following some of the more extreme scientific speculations, Chown leads you on a fairyland tour of the remarkable possibilities of our universe. These vary from the near-mundane – that a pencil stood up on its point actually falls in all directions at once (or it would if nothing interfered with it) – to the out-and-out bizarre thought that the universe might have been intentionally created by super-intelligent beings.
This isn’t a Physics of Star Trek type book, where real science is applied to science fiction stories (though Chown does use a number of quotes from science fiction), but valid (if sometimes not widely accepted) speculation about the nature of the real universe.
The only slight flaw is that the book does read slightly like a number of articles that has been strung together – there’s a lack of consistent linking between sections – but that’s a minor complaint because the whole thing is a delight (and not too long, unlike certain popular science books we could name). A gem.
Review by Brian Clegg