Skip to main content

Froth – Mark Denny ***

This is, without doubt, one of the most curious popular science books I’ve ever read. Subtitled ‘the science of beer’, it sort of does what it says on the tin (or, rather, the bottle), but in the strangest way. I make no secret of the fact that I like beer (see this entry from my blog), so I opened the book with eager anticipation, and to begin with things went quite smoothly (a bit like some pints of beer). In the introduction and first chapter, Denny explains that he’s a physicist and home brewer, and proceeds to give us a very effective potted history of the making of beer in which I learned a lot.
Then, in the second chapter, things start going downhill. He tells us how to make beer. I don’t want to make beer. I want to learn about it, yes. I want to drink it, certainly. But I can’t be bothered with making the stuff. I skipped through that chapter, hoping to get back to the real thing… but then he goes all physics textbook on us. The remaining four chapters: Yeast Population Dynamics, Brewing Thermodynamics, Bubbles and Fluid Flow do contain some interesting snippets – particularly the chapter on beer bubbles (though this has been done better elsewhere) – but there’s way too much technical content for a popular science book.
The chapters are littered with equations and chemical formulae. I don’t particularly subscribe to the infamous advice given Stephen Hawking that every equation halves the readership, but if you are going to use equations in a popular science book, they need to be surrounded by more meat in the sense of historical and personal context, descriptive narrative and so on. This was all bone and gristle, sadly just like a textbook, and really not possible to recommend to anyone without a science degree or equivalent.
It’s a shame because it started off well. Admittedly, the first chapter is over-jokey, with an irritating little ‘intermission’ featuring a fable about someone drinking lots of gassy mass-produced beer and exploding, yet it is still readable and informative. The second chapter is unlikely to attract anyone but a beginner home brewer, while the rest just doesn’t work in the arena of popular science.
A real disappointment.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…