Friday, 9 December 2005

Q&A: Cosmic Conundrums and Everyday Mysteries of Science – Robert Matthews *****

This is a little cracker – not what you’d call heavy duty popular science, but a wonderful bit of light reading that throws in some genuinely fascinating facts.
This is what you could call Last Word Lite. New Scientist magazine has for a number of years had a Last Word page at the back where individuals write in with questions and readers come up with sensible answers. (Though they’ve always resisted our half-humorous question, if black is defined by a lack of reflection of any colour, what colour is shiny black.) The trouble with Last Word is that the answers tend to be a touch tedious, not generally being written by professional writers, and can be over-technical. Robert Matthews does the same job, but his responses are pithy, light and enjoyable.
The book is divided into a number of sections, but to be honest they don’t make much difference. Each is just packed with those sort of questions that we all ask ourselves, but lacking the straightforwardness of children, we don’t actually bother to say aloud. Many that have occurred to me over the years – why don’t mosquitoes spread HIV/AIDS and why don’t people get injured when idiots fire guns into the air (they do) for instance – are in there, along with many others that I’m sure I would have thought of at some point. Sometimes the answer is “we don’t really know”, but often Matthews can bring a light and effective insight to play.
Just occasionally the questions seem a bit hackneyed or childish (how do they get the stripes into toothpaste?) – but I’m pretty sure anyone will find plenty to surprise here. For the know-it-all, there will be some distinct surprises. Bicycles probably don’t stay up the way you thought they did, and those of us who have always impressed people by telling them that glass is really a very stiff liquid, and so old glass tends to be thicker at the bottom, need to think again. Apparently it would take 10 million years for a window pane to get 5% thicker at the base, and the effect we see in old glass is just because medieval glaziers used to put the unevenly manufactured glass of the day thick end down (it makes sense). Oh and Eskimos/Inuit don’t have lots of words for different types of snow, it’s a myth. Sigh.
If there is any complaint about this book, it’s just that the format of lots of little question and answer sections, typically ranging from half a page to a page in length, doesn’t make for an entirely smooth read – it could get rather irritating after a while. However this makes it even better as a dip-in book (dare we say it’s a great one to keep in the bathroom), and most of the content is so fascinating that it’s hard to stop reading once you start. Excellent stuff.
Review by Martin O'Brien

Thursday, 8 December 2005

The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things – Surendra Verma *****

This is an absolutely delightful little book. (I say “little” largely because that’s what the title says. It’s as wide as any normal paperback, and not overly slim at 222 pages. It’s just a little vertically challenged. The idea is simple, but effective. It contains 175 theories or key principles in science. Each gets one (or occasionally two) pages, stating what it is and giving some background.
Put as bluntly as that, it doesn’t sound very exciting – but Surendra Verma makes each little section a vignette that brightly illuminates both the idea itself and the people who were responsible for it. We get little glimpses into people’s lives – it’s an entertaining scientific peepshow that works wonderfully well.
At first sight, some of the entries are a bit scary. Unlike Stephen Hawking, Verma takes no notice of the infamous advice that every equation halves the numbers of readers. The introduction to each section, which says what the principle is before going on to put it in context and explain it, quite often does contain an equation or two. But this really shouldn’t put anyone off – there’s no need to understand what’s going on, and for those who want a little more depth it’s very useful.
The different topics come in chronological order. Many are familiar, but every now and then there’s a total left fielder that takes the reader by surprise. Although the book doesn’t read through with any continuity, it’s not just a dip-in book (though it works nicely this way), it’s easy to keep reading just one more… and just one more… and suddenly a half hour has passed by.
Occasionally the need to fit into a small space does compromise the value of the information. Take Galois’ Theory. It is described as “The study of solutions of some equations and how different solutions are related to each other”, which is so vague it could just as easily be a definition of algebra. We’re told it’s a brilliant and complex theory, and that it can be used to solve classical mathematical problems like “Which regular polygons can be constructed by ruler and compass?” (now there’s a problem we all meet every day), but unfortunately because Galois himself has such a dramatic story, the rest of the page is taken up with his (short) life, and we never really find out what his theory is, or what it can do that makes it worth including in the list. This is a rarity, though – most of the entries are concise, useful and easy to follow. (A couple don’t quite hit the mark. When describing Young’s work on light, Verma says that according to quantum theory, light is “transported in photons that are guided along their paths by waves”, which sounds more like the outdated pilot wave theory than modern quantum theory. But again, such moments are in the minority.)
I really do recommend buying this book and launching yourself into a sea of scientific wonder. Sometimes you will discover discredited ideas, like Lamarck’s theories of heredity, or Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe. At other times, you might find memories from school stimulated, as you revisit Boyle’s law or Newton’s laws of motion. Or you could come across something fresh and delightful (only you can say which these will be, but there are going to be some). This is a book that would be great for anyone studying science at school, to give some enjoyable background to what can be a boring procession of facts and figures, but equally it will provide amusement and entertainment for anyone with an interest in science. You won’t always agree with the choice of content – but that’s always part of the delight of such lists. Enjoy.
Review by Brian Clegg