Skip to main content

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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…