Skip to main content

The Science Magpie – Simon Flynn ****

I have a list of popular science book ideas that I occasionally revisit – things I quite fancy writing in the future. Now I have to cross one of them off the list, because Simon Flynn has written it for me. My list describes it as a popular science version of Schott’s Miscellany, but Flynn has called it by the (to me, rather clumsy) title The Science Magpie.
At least, that’s what I assume it is, because I have to confess, I’ve never read Schott’s Miscellany, so I don’t know what it contains – I merely assume it’s this kind of kaleidoscopic mix of all manner of facts, from the quite interesting to the downright weird. It’s the sort of book you can imagine Stephen Fry curling up with of an evening before hosting QI.
Inevitably in such an inspired hotch-potch there will always be some entries that inspire more than most. I loved, for instance, real molecules with silly names, the 1858 Cambridge University exam questions and the curly snail periodic table. Other parts are more ‘Hmm’ moments, like a whole page of digits of pi, while still others simply get a little dull. Often this is a transcription of a historical document – I have fallen for this one myself. They fascinate if you are researching the particular topic, but to the general reader they can fall a little flat.
The nice thing though is that, even if there’s a topic that doesn’t really grab you, you know that in the next page or two there will be something completely different. There is no order to all this, it is just stuff accumulated at random, like one of those wonderful old fashioned museums where you get a Victorian vacuum cleaner alongside an Egyptian mummy. Delicious.
If anyone ought to know what grabs the science reading public’s attention it’s Flynn, who used to be MD of Icon Books and is now training as a science teacher. I know this is going to be a book that will find its way into many science loving people’s present piles.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…