Monday, 13 December 2010

Virtual Words – Jonathon Keats ****

Because this book is about science and words, I’m easy prey. As a science writer, what could be more wonderful? Jonathon Keats, author of the Jargon Watch column in Wired magazine sets off on a series of riffs on different neologisms that have emerged in science and technology (more technology, if push comes to shove).
Each is an elegantly written essay, light enough to make bedtime reading or a good gift book, but with enough insight to make them really interesting. Of course, if you don’t give a damn about words, it’s all a big ‘So what?’ It doesn’t really advance our knowledge of science an iota. But who couldn’t be enticed into discovering what an unparticle is, the strange history of in vitro meat, the tricky scientific oddity of a memristor, the enjoyment of a touch of crispy bacn (sic), what cloud computing, crowdsourcing or a mashup is (those irritating words that everyone else seems to know what they mean), and what the true origins of w00t are.
I really looked forward to reading this book every time I came back to it – always a good sign – but there were sufficient flaws to have to raise a couple of concerns about it. Firstly there’s the author’s rather pernickety tone, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Then there is a slight feel that his science knowledge lags somewhat behind his expertise elsewhere. In the ‘memristor’ section he tells us ‘the capacitor linked charge and current, the resistor, current and voltage, and the inductor, current and flux.’ I’ve never come across a component called an ‘inductor’ – and since up to this point he had been talking about electricity, I didn’t really know what he meant by flux. It took a moment to realize he was talking about magnetism and an induction coil.
Perhaps that one was just me, but there was one other jarring oddity. The author refers to the early use of the term ‘flying saucer’ – but his comments suggest he hasn’t a clue how this term came into use (it had nothing to do with the shape of the spacecraft and everything to do with the way it moved). If he can get the derivation of such a well known term wrong, it doesn’t bode well for the more obscure ones he describes in his text.
However, the objections are minor and easily overlooked. The fact remains that it’s a very enjoyable book on a subject that will delight anyone with an interest in science/technology and language.
Review by Brian Clegg

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