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 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…