Skip to main content

Coral – Steve Jones ***

I was thrown off kilter from the start by the quote on the front of this book. Jones is the Alan Bennett of science writing. What could this possibly mean? That he writes with a Yorkshire accent? That he has tendency to ruminative monologues? That he can be very funny and poignant at the same time? None of these really seemed to apply. In the end, all I could think of was that Bennett is the voice of the spoken word Winnie the Pooh books, and Steve Jones sometimes comes across a bit like Eeyore.
When you get past the cover, you discover a subject that has just been crying out for good popular science coverage. Just as The Buzz About Bees transformed our view of the humble bee, here was a chance to reveal the sheer depth, complexity and interest of corals. And to an extent the book does it. There’s a lot to enjoy and be amazed by – but it’s all rather summary, because it only comprises about half the content of the book, the rest being huge asides that meander off on loosely related topics. So, for instance, there’s a great swathe of information about cancer, sparked off by the ‘ageless’ nature of hydra cells. This travels too far away from the core topic – it’s fine to have brief asides, but if I’d wanted a book about cancer, I would have got one.
The other danger in the asides is that Jones is straying from his field of expertise, and occasionally it shows. At one point he comments that glass is a liquid (at room temperature, I presume). I have to confess to repeating this old chestnut myself in one of my early books, but this is no longer thought to be the case. (It used to be argued that the liquid nature could be seen in very old window panes, as they tend to be thicker towards the bottom, caused, it was thought, by the glass running down very, very slowly. Actually they are like that because medieval glaziers couldn’t make glass of a consistent thickness, so they put the thicker part of the sheet at the bottom, making the pane more stable.) Also, unless I’m misreading his text, he seems to repeat the climate change myth that global warming in the interglacial periods was caused by rising carbon dioxide levels, rather than the correct analysis that rising carbon dioxide levels were caused by the warming (a totally different mechanism to modern manmade warming).
I’ll finish off with artistic symmetry by checking out another quote from the cover. It is surprising, exciting and so much more interesting than the mechanical simplification that usually passes for popular science. Leaving aside the sheer affront to so many wonderful popular science writers (mechanical simplification is more, in my experience, the lifeblood of newspaper book reviewers), it’s just not true. Jones can write well, but sometimes his prose is stodgy, and it’s not uncommon to have to read a sentence two or three times to get the meaning. Not because it’s too technical, but because the English is too tangled.
So, a real curate’s egg. A fascinating subject, but not enough on the core topic with too devoted to asides that travel far from the subject.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…