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Showing posts from December, 2009

Hope for Animals and Their World – Jane Goodall ****

Jane Goodall is one of those figures in science (or, at least, natural history) who is near mythical. I have to confess to a tendency to confuse her with Diane Fossey (not to be confused with Bob Fosse), so I was slightly surprised that she was English and lives in Bournemouth. However what is certainly not mythical is her enthusiasm for animals which in this book (co-written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) she manages to put across in spades. The idea is that we hear so much doom and gloom about animals being driven to extinction by climate change and human intervention, and this is a chance to hear the good news – the stories of animals we have managed to bring back from the brink. This works very well. It is heartening to hear. Also fascinating to see the in-fighting between those conservationists who believe animals should always be left in their natural habit and those who believe captive breeding is often essential. Goodall comes down on the side of the captive breeders, and…

Don’t be Such a Scientist – Randy Olson ***

I have to admit up front that this book doesn’t score as well as it should because it’s not really popular science. I think it’s an excellent book – but the audience really is the science community, and though scientists do read popular science (often outside their own discipline), a true popular science book should appeal to non-scientists. The reason it’s so targeted is that this book is designed to tell scientists how to communicate better. It’s rather strange that it’s subtitled ‘talking substance in an age of style,’ because what it really is about is teaching scientists how to add style and subtract substance. That might seem like heresy – but Randy Olson argues quite rightly that the scientist’s pernickety insistence on getting everything just right and not really worrying about how glossy the presentation is simply doesn’t wash in a mass media world. Olson went from being a biology professor to Hollywood, so is ideally placed to gently lead the scientific lambs to the communic…

Instant Egghead Guide: Physics – Brian Clegg ***

Physics is a strange subject. It should be exciting, but all too often it’s dull. This little book is an attempt to make physics interesting. I’m not quite clear whether it’s aimed at older children or adults – it would work for either, but it could have been clearer. The pocket-sized book is divided into sections on matter, quantum theory, light, relativity, forces and energy. What’s neat about it is that it doesn’t start with the boring stuff – it plunges in with modern physics, and only pulls in the classical where necessary. The format is 100 short articles, each of which has ‘the basics’, ‘on the frontier’ and one or two ‘cocktail party tidbits’, which works quite well. They’re all very readable and presented in a breezy style that makes it easy to keep going. However, just as I’m not sure who the book is aimed at, I’m not sure what it’s for either. You could read it through from beginning to end – it works better than most short article based books in this respect – but equally …

The Brain Book – Rita Carter ****

This is a strange book, using a children’s book format for a serious subject. It has Dorling Kindersley’s usual format of splitting a topic up into two page spreads, which are highly illustrated and filled with little items – an approach that tends to be thought of as best for children – and applies it to the ‘structure, function and disorders’ of the brain. Given that incongruity it really shouldn’t work as a serious adult title – but it is surprisingly good. It’s easy to get sucked in and just read one more page. The format is still highly inferior to a ‘proper’ book for the pure popular science delight of sitting down to a good read about a science subject. The book can’t flow the way it should with this layout, and the pictures and bitty structure just get in the way – but even so, the content is sufficiently good that it overcomes the format and still works as a popular science title. As you move through the book you will pick up information on the structure of the brain and how …

Heatstroke – Anthony D. Barnosky *****

I thought I knew what this book would be about as soon as I saw that subtitle ‘nature in an age of global warming’. Save the polar bear, blah, blah… pity the poor furry creature. In fact it proved to be a wonderful surprise. What hits you first is Anthony Barnosky’s excellent writing style. It’s pitched at just the right level. It draws you in, keeps you interested and never gets stuffy. There’s enough of Barnosky’s voice in there to make it personal, and he really knows how put science across with enthusiasm and to great effect. Then there’s the content. Barnosky carefully shows us how climate change has affected nature in the past – how some species adapt or move to cope while others will inevitably be wiped out. In that, the impact of global warming on nature is a perfectly normal occurrence. But, he argues, things are different now, in part because of the different pace of change, and in part because we have chopped up nature into small chunks and pushed species so close to their …