Monday, 8 June 2009

Beware Invisible Cows – Andy Martin ***

This is a remarkable book, taking a very original approach to popular science that has the potential to be great – and an equal potential to be dire. It’s what I’d define as the first Impressionist popular science book (with the possible exception of the disastrous Everything and More by David Foster Wallace).
Just as the Impressionists in the art world moved away from a literal and accurate reflection of what was seen, instead trying to portray the impact of the visual on the senses, Andy Martin’s meandering book is much more about how the science he discovers along the way in his attempt to search for ‘the source of the universe’ impacts him, than about the science itself.
The result has mixed value. Martin visits locations like the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the LIGO gravitational wave observatory in Washington state – and there gives us a sub-Bill Bryson guided tour and interaction with some of the scientists he meets, and this can be quite interesting. It just hadn’t occurred to me that at 14,000 feet, working on the Keck Observatory means dealing with altitude problems (though most of the scientists work from remote stations without the need to undergo the rigours of high altitude). But at other times, Martin rambles on about things that really are of no interest.
Occasionally he seems not to get the point. This is most obvious when he refers to the reflection in a mirror. He goes on (and on) and about left and right being reversed. ‘This is the inescapable law of left-right reversal, built into the very process of reflection,’ he says. Well, no, it isn’t. Just a moment’s thought would show that there is nothing about reflection that inherently requires a left-right reversal (as opposed to top-bottom, for example). What in fact happens in a mirror is back-front reversal. It turns things inside out like a rubber mould. It’s just our interpretation of what is front and back, left and right, that makes us interpret the image the way we do.
There’s also some pretty ropy stuff about quantum entanglement, where we get the impression that his physicist brother is attempting to build an instantaneous communicator, only after the failure of which does he realize it’s not possible. Sadly this has been common knowledge in the field for a long time – the whole story feels like a myth. (For a more effective investigation of entanglement, see my book The God Effect.)
Overall, I found Beware Invisible Cows frustrating and often verging on the unreadable. The problem with interpreting the science through Andy Martin’s life is you have to be interested in Andy Martin – and I’m not. From my own viewpoint, I couldn’t give the book more than a two star rating, but I’ve actually rated it three as I believe that some people will enjoy the florid writing style and the endless deviations into personal history.
It’s a novel, and interesting attempt – but it’s not for me.
Review by Brian Clegg

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