Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Science without the Boring Bits – Ian Crofton ***

Writers of popular science books can have quite an uphill struggle on their hands in making science approachable. One technique that has proved attractive over the last few years is the bite-sized nugget approach, ideally taking on some whacky aspects of science, like the popular New Scientist inspired titles that include Why Do Penguins’ Feet not Freeze? Ian Crofton has taken this funny factoid approach and combined it with a timeline to take a varied pot-pourri of a journey through scientific history from 3750 BC (the first entry is 3929 BC, but that refers to a dating of the universe conjecture, not a bit of science) to the present day.
Along the way, the reader encounters a wonderful cornucopia of strange scientific facts and unlikely but very wrong pseudo-scientific hypotheses and quack remedies. Picking a few at random we hear of how to avoid bookworms, why people can sit in an oven with steak that is cooking without being chargrilled, and how a goat failed to transmute into a young man using black magic.
Sometimes, if you know more about the context of the little snippet of information, the approach can oversimplify things. There’s only so much you can put in a paragraph or two. (The goat transformation event, for instance, undertaken by the ghost hunter Harry Price, and probably not what many would regard as science at all, was more a publicity stunt than a serious scientific endeavour (and I seem to remember this unlikely event on the Brocken in Germany also featured a maiden in some role or other.))
There were many genuinely interesting facts here (and some rather prurient stuff too) – but my problem with this book is that it didn’t really work as something to sit down and read. You can only take so many factoids in one sitting. It would be ideal, I think, as one of those books kept in the bathroom to dip into for a few minutes – and as such would make an excellent gift book – but I can’t in all honestly call this a particularly effective book to sit down and read from end to end with the intention of learning more about science as well as being entertained. The Penguins Feet type books worked better in this regard as there tended to be considerably longer articles on any particular topic.
A good gift book, then, ideal for a few minutes here or there, but the difficulty of reading it from end to end means we have to mark it down a little in the specifics we are looking for on this site.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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