Skip to main content

Why Can’t Elephants Jump? – Mick O’ Hare (Ed.) ***

Here we go again with another collection of 114 questions (there’s a title to the next book: Why 114 Questions in these Books?) that first appeared in the ‘Last Word’ section of New Scientist magazine. The format is simple – readers write in with questions, other readers provide answers, the best of which are published. The books contain the question, selected good answers and sometimes editorial comment.
I loved the earlier Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?, and still got a lot out of the experiment-oriented How to Fossilize your Hamster. But I did comment in the Hamster review: ‘These books have been great but they aren’t really decent popular science books as they don’t have any narrative flow. The approach has been milked to death now – let’s see something different.’ I unfortunately did get a sense of diminishing returns this time around. Enough, already.
I’m not saying that some of the questions and answers weren’t good. I quite enjoyed, for instance, the title question, which was actually significantly better than the title of the book as ‘Is it true that elephants are the only quadrupeds that cannot jump’. I liked the attempt to work out how long it would take the Earth to freeze if the Sun went out, ‘Is it possible to be too cold to light a fire?’ and ‘Do mosquitoes get malaria?’ But I still had a slight feeling that the barrel was being scraped with many of the items, and increasingly found the replies irritating in their know-it-all way.
Don’t get me wrong, this remains an excellent present for those difficult-to-buy-for people (not for me, thanks, I’ve already got one. And it’s definitely interesting if you haven’t got the previous books (though if you haven’t, I’d go for Penguins’ Feet), but I couldn’t get as excited about this title as the earlier entries in the series.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
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…