Skip to main content

Air – William Bryant Logan ***

This is a rather poetic book, something of a rarity in popular science and not necessarily one that fits well with the genre. The author, who has a botanical background, tries to give the reader a portrait of the air as it influences mostly living things on the planet.
I’m afraid that for me it just didn’t work. I found the attempt to be arty in descriptions simply plodding and hard work. I just wasn’t getting anywhere quickly enough: I found myself making excuses for why I wasn’t coming back to the book every time I put it down. I can see it will work for some people, but it didn’t for me.
Apart from anything else, the title is a bit misleading. The book is called ‘AIR – the restless shaper of the world’ – but very little of it is actually about the air, it’s much more about how living things on the Earth make use of the air. Even when you get a section labelled ‘Shining’ with chapters like ‘Why the daytime sky is light’ (which spends most of its time explaining why it’s not about why the sky is blue), there is very little content about the air and soon William Bryant Logan is off on one of his pet topics again.
I haven’t read the author’s previous books Dirt and Oak, but by the sound of them they are much more the kind of thing he ought to be writing. Air is not his kind of thing.
Review by Brian Clegg


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…