Skip to main content

Being Virtual – Davey Winder ***

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
However, there is a problem with the Dana Centre – and it comes through to some extent in this book. When I look at the Centre’s programme, there’s rarely anything I would want to go to. There is very little hard science – although I’ve taken part in couple of excellent hard science events there, their brief is strongly around science and society, which means the topics are often so soft they are positively mushy.
That’s really why this book only scores three stars. It is highly enjoyable to read, but contains very little science, and doesn’t even, I would suggest, go to the heart of the topic it is covering – the online virtual world. Like the Dana Centre itself, there is an element of style over substance in the way the book is constructed. It has glossy pages with colour illustrations – which is great – but the pages are often dominated by really irritating multicoloured pull quotes, which make it harder to read and provide no benefit to the reader.
What we get is a very personal guide to this world by Davey Winder. It tells us a fair amount of history – though it tends to be limited to the aspects he has experience of. So we hear, for instance, about CiX but Compuserve, where I got my first experience of online networking, isn’t even mentioned. Perhaps there is just a bit too much of Davey himself in the book – interesting though he is – I’d rather the space had been used to fill out more of those missing details.
Although we hear very sensible concerns about the more dubious aspects of the virtual worlds and identity theft, the general tone is positive and supportive. In fact, if anything I’d suggest Winder over-sells virtual life. While he has a very valid point about the opportunities for those with some sort of disadvantage in the real world to overcome that virtually – the majority of his case studies are people who are, in one way or another, damaged goods – what’s less clear is the accuracy of the argument that many people aren’t wasting huge amounts of time in their virtual lives. It might be easier to stay virtual, but I found it difficult not to think how much better they would be putting all that time and effort into achieving something in the real world that will be more lasting and ultimately more fulfilling.
All in all, not a bad book at all – a good introduction to modern virtual worlds and what is possible (and not possible) there – but a little overloaded with feely stuff, and not enough science to back it up.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …