Skip to main content

The Human Story – Charles Lockwood ***

It’s not totally clear at first glance just what kind of book this is. The combination of large format and a thin content (just over 100 pages) with lavish colour illustrations gives the impression of a children’s book, but the text isn’t particularly aimed at children. It reads well, but without the narrative drive of a good popular science book – in some ways it’s more like a good introductory text book – but don’t be put off by this, as it is readable, with good content.
Broadly, the book divides into five sections – the earliest hominins, Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Early Homo and Later Homo (including, of course, us). If this isn’t a subject you’ve followed, it’s interesting to see just what a range of pre-humans there are now, though inevitably there is still dispute over what’s what, especially when (for instance) you are trying to decide if a creature walked upright based solely on its skull. There’s plenty of absorbing detail to be got out of teeth, too – which might come as a surprise.
Some of the later homo stuff is particularly interesting – we’ve got the ‘hobbit’ Homo floresiensis in there, and suggestions that, for example, Neanderthals were much closer to Homo sapiens than many of us might think – perhaps just a variant rather than a truly separate species.
Just occasionally it can get a little samey, going through bone after bone – but I never found myself inclined to give up on a subject I really hadn’t read much about before. This is very much an introduction, so anyone who is well read in the subject won’t find a lot that’s new. I’m not sure it lives up to all of its subtitle Where we came from and how we evolved. It certainly does the first part, but the ‘how’ of our evolution isn’t as obvious, unless you interpret this to mean what stages our ancestors went through. Even so it largely does what it says on the cover in an effective and well-illustrated fashion.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…