Skip to main content

The Living End – Guy Brown ***

Take a glance at the cover of Guy Brown’s book and what does it seem to be about? I have to confess I thought it was fishermen, and with a title like that, the collapse of the fishing industry. I don’t say this to complain about the book design, though I will be doing that shortly, but to highlight the way the true topic doesn’t really encourage the reader in, which is presumably why the cover doesn’t feature graves or something similar. It’s about death, ageing and immortality, but mostly death.
Let’s get that design moan out of the way. Apart from the misleading cover design, this little hardback doesn’t look unattractive, but open it up and there’s horror inside. The text is plastered across the page in a largish sans serif font, heading way into the gutters at the side with very small paragraph indentations. The result is such a big, undistinguished block of text that it’s very uncomfortable to read. I’ve seen (much) better page layout in books on Lulu.
There’s no doubt that there some interesting stuff in here. I was particularly fascinated that the ‘people only lived until their thirties in the middle ages’ myth was in fact a double inverted myth. People used to assume the fact that the average lifespan of an adult was (say) 35 meant that people mostly lived to 35. More educated books (like, I admit, a couple of mine) spot that this is not really a meaningful number, because there was so much child mortality. We also see quite a few well known individuals live to their 50s, 60s, and 70s. So the assumption is that lifespans weren’t vast different from now, if you survived to be an adult.
However Brown shows that, though child mortality was hugely dominant in (say) the 17th century, the commonest life expectancy of those surviving childhood was mid-thirties. Even this, however proves an over-simplification, because as many people died in their 50s 60s and 70s as died in their 30s and 40s. The reality was that the spread was a lot bigger than now, but it’s too simple to say that most people who survived adulthood reached at least 60.
Towards the end of the book, Brown treats the ideas of life extension, though I found this rather stodgy and miserable for such an interesting subject. And in the end, that’s the fatal (?!) flaw of this book. It’s just a miserable topic. I didn’t want to start it, and as I read it didn’t get any more encouraging. I know everything we read can’t be cheerful and upbeat, but I find it hard to recommend taking on what is clearly an important topic, but nonetheless is one that dampens the soul so thoroughly.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

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 …