Skip to main content

The Big Necessity – Rose George ****

Strictly, this book shouldn’t be here at all as there’s not a lot of science in it – but taking the original, wider definition of scientia, I certainly feel that I gained a fair amount of knowledge from Rose George’s excellent book, on a subject that certainly needs more exposure than it usually gets – the essential job of dealing with human waste.
Of course there is a lot of science in the subject, but George’s book concentrates on the practical – it’s more about the engineering and sociology than the pure science. She’s at her best when describing excursions down the sewers with the men who work there, or venturing into water treatment plants.
At the heart of the book is the horrendous statistic that 2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation – not even a trench latrine – terrible because there’s no point giving access to clean water if someone can’t get away from their faeces. Equally fascinating to western eyes was the amazing story of the Japanese ‘high function’ toilet with seated seat and wash and dry features.
If I have a complaint it’s that there was a bit too much on China and Africa, and that George over-emphasizes the solids. She spends ages on the flush toilet, but hardly mentions urinals – perhaps because she hasn’t been exposed to them in all their wondrous variety. This combination of little problems means surprisingly (given she apparently wrote the book there) she doesn’t mention France, with it’s slowly dying penchant for stand-up/squat toilets, and its lack of concern about screening urinals from view. We read a lot about the lack of cubicle doors in China, but nothing about a European nation that thinks nothing of sticking a urinal unshielded on the outside of a beach building.
Even so, it’s an excellent read with surprises at every turn – or should that be in every U-bend?
Paperback:  
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 Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

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…