Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Just Another Day – Adam Hart-Davis ****

A couple of months ago I was writing an article about how to put science across for children, and commented that one of the ways to do so is to relate science to their everyday life. As if by magic, Adam Hart-Davis’s latest book Just Another Day, subtitled “the science and technology of our everyday lives,” does just that.
It’s a great concept. Hart-Davis takes us through his day, or rather an amalgam of all his days, and along the way uses each and every little detail, from his alarm clock and his homemade garden urinal to his bicycle and his interest in photography, to explore the many ways science and technology impacts life. Obviously not everyone has a life like Hart-Davis’s, but there is enough genuine everyday here to make a good impact.
As is often the case with Hart-Davis’s books, it is hard to tell if it is aimed at children or adults – arguably this is because he is appealing to that sense of wonder we all have (though it tends to be more deeply buried in the older reader). The book is largeish format and glossy, loaded with pictures and with text that is acceptable for an adult but won’t over-stretch the reading skills of an 11-year-old. As the only part of the Hart-Davis life that’s missing is what goes on in the bedroom, you might suspect it is for the younger audience. Going on the pricing, though, it is firmly aimed at adults.
The core freedom to jump around as inspiration hits the author is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is wonderfully engaging to be able to flit off in half a dozen different directions in a page or two, but then spend several pages on the history and technology of shaving, something few of us have thought about. The word serendipity springs to mind. At its best, the book positively bubbles with ideas and enthusiasm. On the down side, this can sometimes lead to a disjointed text which becomes a list of expanded factoids without much of a thread. It’s interesting that Hart-Davis says he wrote a lot of the book in bits on train. Although he tells us this to demonstrate the wonders of modern portable computing, it also might have influenced that occasional lack of flow.
Because this is very much Hart-Davis’s “just another day”, there is a lot of the man in the book. If you have never come across him, Hart-Davis is a UK TV presenter, specializing in an eccentric exploration of history of technology. Even if you didn’t know him before, you will after reading this book. You will find out how he likes a cup of tea, why his shoes are different colours, what he has for breakfast, how he feels when he gives a presentation and much more. As Hart-Davis fits strongly into the marmite category – you either love him or hate him – this means that the four star recommendation is for Hart-Davis fans. Others might find this man, whose calculated naivety, over the top jollity and unusual clothes sense makes him reminiscent of a geriatric Noddy too irritating to enjoy what is without doubt a clever idea. Only you can tell.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 18 September 2006

Francis Crick – Matt Ridley *****

A new Matt Ridley book is always a looked-forward to event, and in this latest title, he has taken on one of the big names of twentieth century science, who has had surprisingly little direct coverage to date: Francis Crick.
It’s interesting to see how Ridley copes, as his previous books have focussed on the science, where this is essentially about the man, though of course his discoveries in the structure of DNA, the way base coding works and much more play a huge part in the story. The first chapter is a little worrying – Crick’s family background and early years verge on the dull, but it’s important not to be put off by this. Once Crick gets to university the story takes off and the book is excellent from there on.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most interesting part of the story happens after what most of us would think of as the big discovery. We’re used to books about the structure of DNA making a big thing of the circumstances of the analysis of the double spiral, of the shaky relationship between Crick and Watson at Cambridge and Wilkins in London, and particularly of the difficulties between these three and Rosalind Franklin. But much of this reaction comes from 20:20 hindsight. At the time, the discovery of DNA’s structure caused little public reaction and life went on. It was Crick’s subsequent work, working on the way that DNA functions and how the DNA code is interpreted, by the biological machines in the cell, that Ridley makes more of, and justifiably, as it is much less well known and equally as absorbing.
Although Ridley doesn’t remark on it, Francis Crick comes across as something of an English equivalent of Richard Feynman, with that same talkativeness, that talent of grasping an idea quickly and that frightening ability to make the intuitive leap. He also shared Feynman’s distaste for some authority figures – in Crick’s case including the church and royalty – which was sometimes taken to extreme lengths, as when he withdrew his association with the (then) new Churchill College in Cambridge because they decided to build a chapel (even though no educational funds were used) and he felt that a chapel was a backward step in what he believed was an increasingly secular society.
What Ridley does bring out well is the way that Crick’s abundant creativity combined with a lack of inhibition made Crick someone whose constant stream of ideas and challenges to other people’s thinking could be quite a threat. Ridley describes how having Crick in the audience of a lecture could be terrifying – if very entertaining for onlookers. And like William Shockley (see Broken Genius), Crick risked his career with his tendency to outspoken remarks about genetics and his feeling that not everyone should be allowed to have children – though unlike Shockley, Crick’s dabbling with eugenics seems to have been largely ignored, relieving Crick of the vilification that Shockley received.
Perhaps because this is a biography, Ridley doesn’t bother to explain some of the science along the way. While this is justifiable in some of the better known aspects of DNA, when he uses a term like “tautomer” with very little explanation, the reader really could do with a little more exposition. Ridley gets away with it by keeping things so brisk that you shrug it off, but it would have been better to slow down a little and expand.
All in all, Crick is very well served by this biography, which brings to life a man whose name is well known, but whose life has been something of a mystery.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 8 September 2006

How Slow Can You Waterski? – Simon Rogers (Ed.) ****

There has been a rash of these collections of pithy and often witty science articles in the last few years. They tend to emerge from newspapers, as a handy way of squeezing a little more money out of columns and this is no exception – taken from a column called “This week – the science behind the news” in the Guardian, probably the best of the UK’s national newspapers when it comes to science coverage. This cut and paste book production can produce very mixed results, but I’m pleased to say that this particular offering stands up very well.
When short pieces like this are readable and not too patronising (or painful in their weak humour) they can be real page turners. It’s very easy to think “I’ll just read another”, then “maybe one more” and before you know it, you are half way through the book. Oddly, the weakest sections were the earlier ones, concentrating on health and babies and such – perhaps these were deemed to be the ones most of interest to the non-science reader. But all are good and some are excellent. (I can’t help pointing out, though, the danger of making scientific predictions. In What Makes a Planet a Planet, we’re told “it’s probably too late” to stop calling Pluto a planet, even though it’s now hard to justify it being one. Sadly the book came out just a week or two after Pluto was demoted.)
One puzzle that might have occurred to you is why they picked out that particular topic as the title of the book. It’s certainly not one of the more interesting topics. I think it’s because, unlike some of the competition, they don’t concentrate on really weird scientific questions, but ones of genuine interest. The Guardian has something of a history of coming up with witty headlines, but these haven’t been applied here – they’re straightforward labels on topics that are genuinely interesting, but don’t have that bizzaro feel beloved of those who choose titles for this type of book. So I can tell you that (in a random sample) Do Cats and Dogs Need Sunscreen, How Heavy Can a Baby Get, Do Badgers Spread Bovine TB, Why Do Aircraft Wings Now Go Up At The Ends and How Can I Learn to Hold My Breath Like a Freediver are all excellent, even if they don’t necessarily shout out “book title” (I’d have gone with the cats and dogs rather than the waterskier, though).
It’s not going to give you any great insights into the big scientific questions of the day, but that doesn’t stop it being good scientific fun.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg