Tuesday, 30 August 2005

Why Does a Ball Bounce – Adam Hart-Davis ****

… and 100 other questions from the world of science the title continues, in case balls and their bouncing aren’t your favourite topic (oddly the cover images and the Amazon.com text only allow us 99 other questions, but the real book in front of me proudly insists on 100).
The book consists of 101 pairs of pages – one with text, the other with a striking colour photograph taken by author. It’s beautifully produced, and that’s part of its attraction. The text is simple, entertaining and eyecatching. Adam Hart-Davis is a popular TV presenter in the UK, specializing in history of technology, and he has this sort of thing off to a fine art.
At their best, the entries are concise and fun. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of space for text, so some of the entries are so condensed that they miss out some of the best bits. For example, a piece on the age of the earth gives over nearly half the text to Archbishop Usher’s delightful attempt at calculating the age from the bible, dating it back to 4004 BC, and most of the rest to Charles Lyell’s geological work. Hart-Davis then throws into the last sentence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old without giving any clue as to how this figure (which certainly isn’t Lyell’s) was reached. A little later, he asks why flames are bright, but never mentions why hot things give off light, which seems odd. And again, when commenting on the colours of the rainbow, Hart-Davis tells us that Newton saw seven colours, without pointing out why Newton identified this particular number of colours (because he thought light, like sound, ought to operate in octaves).
However, this desire for extra content aside, the book has a fascinatingly eclectic combination of good basic science, like the stuff about light, weird and wonderful stuff like the rocks that appear to move at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley (though the “why” of this one is very much speculation), and items where there’s a certain tendency to reply to the title question on the page with a brisk “Who cares?”, like the magnificently irrelevant question, “What is brimstone?”
If there’s a problem with the book apart from the fact that it should have at least three times as much text per item, it’s that it uncomfortably straddles the market between a children’s book and an adult book, which is why we’ve listed it as both. It would get three stars as an adult coffee table book, but it works best as the sort of delightful children’s book that teases the reader with beautifully fascinating facts, and as such we’ve given it four stars. Probably the ideal age for the reader is 10-14. But having said that, many adults will enjoy its bite-sized wonders, and perhaps be inspired to something with a little more depth.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 29 August 2005

The Talking Ape – Robbins Burling ****

Language – surely one of the key factors to making us human – and Robbins Burling does a superb job of explaining just what language is and how it might have originated.
This one of those popular science books that just reads itself – although Burling does use a little jargon, he employs it sparingly, and with careful explanation. The text along the way is easy to follow and the arguments are absolutely fascinating.
Though Burling has clear ideas of just how language developed (including the remarkable thought that it may have originated as a form of proto-music), he is careful to put across the opposing views that crop up throughout the field. This is a book that can be read easily by anyone with an interest, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of oversimplifying. Equally fascinating for the non-linguist is discovering some of the complexities of our communications channels – how, for example, gestures form part of our language, or how the genetically programmed “calls” like laughter and sobbing are analogue, while language is digital.
There are a couple of quibbles. It’s a real shame Burling seems to have overlooked the highly impressive content of Clive Bramhall’s The Eternal Child, which powerfully argues that much that makes us human is a side effect of the need to cooperate when our ancestors moved onto the savannah, pushing us into a more cooperative infantile development. For example, Burling wonders why language always seems to have developed in spoken, rather than gestured form – could it be because the most infantile communication is vocal; crying comes before hand signals? Any book on human origins that ignores Bramhall’s thesis these days is one sandwich short of a picnic.
The only other mild irritation is Burling’s tendency to repeat himself. This is a very readable book, but some of the points he makes come up over and over in different chapters. It’s true they say “tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them,” but it’s overdone here.
These quibbles apart, though, this is a delightful book for anyone interested in language or the development of the human mind. Unlike so many attempts at popular science by academics, this is more like a witty, accessible chat from an enthusiast than yet another lecture, boring droned out by someone who teaches because he has to. Recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg