Skip to main content

30 Second Theories – Paul Parsons (Ed.) ***

Books are pretty much of a muchness physically, so it’s really nice when a publisher comes up with something different, as is the case with 30 Second Theories. It’s shaped like a small coffee table book, and the dustcoverless outer cover is a textured brown stuff that makes this elegant hardback feel rather special. Inside, glossy pages pit a page of text against a full page of illustration – a sort of adult Dorling Kindersley format, except the pictures, though artistic, rarely convey a lot of information, which makes them a bit of a waste of space.
The challenging task the book sets out to fill is to cover all of science in 50 snippets that can be read in 30 seconds each. There are some worries about this format. One is that it just isn’t practical to do anything useful in that amount of text. My pocket Instant Egghead Physics covers physics alone in 100 rather longer snippets – to do the whole of science in 50 seems an unlikely possibility. There’s also the value for money argument. 50 lots of 30 seconds is 25 minutes. Is £12.99 an acceptable price for 25 minutes of reading?
When we get into the meat of it, there’s certainly some good stuff in here. The articles are written by a mix of authors, some better than others at capturing a subject in a few lines. The lesser contributions are vague woffly summaries, but some of the authors do really manage to raise interest in a topic – only, of course to leave you wanting a lot more. I think what would have transformed this book is if each page, as well as the totally useless snippets of information like dates of birth of key figures, also listed three or four books that concentrated on the specific topic, so someone interested could get into more depth, using this book as a taster. (In fact the publisher still could do this on a website, so you could click through and buy the other books. They would have to be brave enough to recommend other publishers’ books, but it would be really worthwhile.)
That way, if entanglement took your fancy (and it should), you could be pointed to my book The God Effect, or if you wanted to find out more about the woeful unscientific nature of complimentary and alternative medicine, you could be referred to Singh and Ernst’s excellent Trick or Treatment.
Mentioning complimentary and alternative medicine highlights one of the oddities of the book. There are at least two of the 50 articles on something that isn’t really science at all – the medicine one, which while mildly disparaging really doesn’t reflect how poor the basis of these treatments is – and one on psychoanalysis, which has pretty widely been discredited as any form of science. It’s doubly weird that Freud appears in one of the handful of biographies of key figures (just 7 in total). He wasn’t a scientist at all, and has contributed practically nothing of value. Almost as odd is having a biography of James Lovelock – definitely a scientist, but hardly in the Newton and Einstein class. This is just strange.
Occasionally the brevity required means that the articles comes close to not really getting it right. Some science simply can’t be described in this length of piece, and the contraction can only lead to confusion. There’s also the odd case where the illustration (I wonder who came up with the content of these?) simply doesn’t reflect reality. For instance, the illustration for natural selection describes it as a ‘knock-out punch for religion.’ Hardly. Some of the illustrations had if anything a negative benefit.
Overall, then, a curate’s egg. It’s a noble venture, and could have worked with a bit more content and recommended books for each topic. But as it stands I really can’t see who is going to benefit from it.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

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 …