Skip to main content

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer *****

There is a very particular style of popular science writing, often from America, that combines information on science with a personal voyage of discovery. On the whole they tend to be written either by quite young writers or by someone very well funded by a magazine or a TV company (book publishers rarely pay well enough) because they involve giving up maybe a year of your life to go on the road and follow up a high concept. The cream of these books are superbly enjoyable – and I think Joshua Foer’s is the best I’ve ever read, making it a classic of the genre.
In Moonwalking with Einstein he explores the world of competitive memory skills – a small, almost unknown cadre of (dare we say) rather weird individuals who spend the year practising to be able compete at tasks like memorizing the order of a pack of cards (allegedly very useful in casinos, though Foer doesn’t really explore this particular application), an unseen poem, a list of names and faces, and random binary digits.
Along the way – and here comes the science bit, as they say in all the best cosmetic adverts – he gives us a fair amount of information on the nature of memory and how the human brain processes it, though obviously this is not covered in as much detail as you would get in a ‘pure’ popular science book – it probably amounts to less than a quarter of the content. Even so, Foer gives us a good picture of current thinking on what is still an area of science requiring a lot more understanding.
The brain science is pretty well presented – though I’ve read a lot about the brain, I still learned a few things – but the captivating part of the book is Foer’s personal journey. Not only does he get to know the memory champions, and the larger-than-life ‘use your brain better’ guru Tony Buzan – he actually enters the US Memory Championships. It seems unlikely that an ‘amateur’ would do well, but apparently the US Championships are not in the same league as the Europeans, and Foer is guided by a UK master – so he has a fighting chance of getting placed (apart from an epilogue, the book peaks with his taking part – I won’t give the game away by saying how he does).
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is when he is dealing with ‘savants’, people who have unusual and remarkable talents, often accompanied by mental disabilities. He talks to the man who was the inspiration of the movie Rain Man, but the best part of all is his interaction with the savant Daniel Tammet who Foer gives strong evidence for being not quite what he seems. It’s not that Tammet doesn’t have excellent memory and mental maths skills – but Foer clearly believes this originated from training rather than from any special mental capacity. And his argument is very persuasive.
Overall, then, a truly enjoyable book with a real surge of excitement as ‘our boy’ takes on the US Championships. You really do learn quite a lot about how memory works, and also plenty of excellent memory techniques. In the epilogue, Foer points out something I too have observed from dabbling in memory techniques. They really do work. It’s perfectly possible for pretty well anyone to remember names and lists and phone numbers. But the fact is it is actually harder work than just jotting down a note. These techniques work conceptually, but they rarely seem worth the effort in practice. Highly recommended.
Also on Kindle:  
Also in audio download: 
Also on CD:  
Also in hardback (UK is large print):  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…