Skip to main content

The Tiger that Isn't - Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot *****

Leaving aside the fact that the authors of this book sound like a location from Doctor Who ("I stared across the barren waste of the Dilnot Blastland"), reading it is a great experience. The premise is simple, but effective. All the time we are bombarded with numbers, with statistics, that we tend to take as gospel. But both the numbers themselves and the way they are used should always be subject to a little light questioning.

The authors point out how easy it is to bamboozled by very large numbers, that can be checked out with only a few moments thought. Often what is required is to put the numbers into terms we can better understand. For example, if you heard that £3.12 billion was being spent on the UK population, it sounds an immense amount. But as the authors point out, when you take around 60 million people in the UK and 52 weeks in a year, this amounts to spending £1 a week on each person - not quite as dramatic as it seems.

I've found myself being a little bit more thoughtful about the headline figures I see in the media since reading the book. The same day I saw a newspaper headline telling how some serious crime was up 50% - a huge increase. But when you looked at the actual numbers, there were only 20 more cases. Tragedies, each one, for the people involved, but still a very unlikely occurrence, blown out of proportion by the power of percentages.

Averages, too, come in for a good deal of stick. After all, the average person has less than 2 feet (think about it), so should we change the way we sell shoes in pairs? Probably not.

Very readable, always informative and often entertaining, this is a book that every politician, civil servant and ... well, everyone... should read. It is unashamedly UK-based in its examples, which I guess explains why there isn't a US edition - but that shouldn't put anyone off. The message is universal.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…