Monday, 29 October 2012

Discord – Mike Goldsmith ***

Subtitled ‘the story of noise’ this is a book about noise as nuisance, noise as literal discord and just what noise is – through the ages.
When I started the book I was thrilled – there really hasn’t been a good book about sound that I’ve come across, and inevitably this book puts in place a lot of the science of sound, as well as what turns it into noise. The early part is truly fascinating.
It’s very interesting in terms of noise as nuisance just how far the concept goes back, and also a delight to see the various early legal and scientific attempts to quantify it and control it. Overall, though, the plodding historical approach, almost decade by decade, does become horribly repetitive as the book continues and this really makes what would otherwise have been a truly excellent book a bit of a chore to read.
My other sadness is that there isn’t more about discordant music. As far as I have spotted there are only two references to this, first in the classical era and then 20th century. This misses some great possibilities – for example the way in Tudor/Elizabethan music, effectively a different key was used for ascending and descending note sequences, producing some startling discords – or for that matter the way Bach made use of them and then was Bowdlerized by the Victorians who thought he didn’t mean it.
Overall, then, a great start to an excellent concept, but the book doesn’t deliver consistently and can be more than a bit repetitious.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Gravity – Brian Clegg ****

Gravity is a subject that sneaks around the senses. It’s all pervasive. It gets everywhere in your life, but on the whole you ignore it, except when it intrudes in the form of a fall. It is, of course, much more than the thing that sticks you to the surface of the planet, as it tends to be presented in children’s non-fiction books. It’s why the Earth stays in orbit. It’s why the Earth and the Sun formed in the first place. And all this from a force that is billions upon billions of times weaker than electromagnetism.
In the same way, gravity tends to be sidelined in popular science books. It creeps into books about relativity, or basic physics. But I’m not aware that it has been treated head on until now. To be honest, when presented with it, I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough material to fill a book, but Brian Clegg has defied that possibility by giving us both a historical journey through humanity’s gradual understanding that gravity existed at all (I love that Newton was criticised because his idea was ‘occult’) up to the amazing breakthrough of general relativity.
This is the most detailed explanation of general relativity I’ve seen in a popular science book, which really helped as most of the ones I’ve seen have left big holes in my understanding. It’s not too technical, though it is the heaviest part of the book and may put one or two people off. It’s followed, though, by the light relief of antigravity, a brilliant subject as it allows all the fringe ideas full rein.
All in all, it won’t appeal so much to the readers of really light weight popular science, but if you like your reading with a bit of meat on it, but without the bafflement of those books from physics professors that stray too far into the maths, this is the one for  you.
Review by Peter Spitz
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Brain Supremacy – Kathleen Taylor ***

I really enjoyed Kathleen Taylor’s previous book Brainwashing, commenting that it was that rarest of species, a book that was both academic and readable, so I picked up her new title, The Brain Supremacy, with some enthusiasm. That enthusiasm proved to be partially justified.
The good news is that there is a whole lot in here we ought to know about our current best knowledge of the brain and the various fascinating bits of technology that are used to study it. If you read any human science/brain books these days you can expect to come across fMRI, but not only is Taylor one of the first to explain to me what the point of the ‘f’ is, she also takes in PET, MEG and more.
Unfortunately, though, this isn’t a book I could enthuse over as much as Brainwashing, for a couple of reasons. Firstly it’s far too long. At 368 pages it doesn’t sound enormous, but it really did seem to go on for ever. This isn’t helped by rather too much description of bits of the brain. Secondly it lacks focus. It meanders from mind reading (with some very handwaving speculation about future tech) to brain function to genetic enhancement – I found it difficult to get a feel for what the overall thrust of the book was. The writing, while fine, doesn’t give that ‘having a conversation with a real person’ feel of Brainwashing. And there was rather too much apologetic ‘this physics stuff is really complicated’ type comment.
On the minor quibbles side, Taylor perpetuates the hoary old myth that in the olden days people died in their forties. She comments ‘My grandmother, passing her 88th birthday, was unusual. Life expectancy for girls born at the beginning of the twentieth century was just 49 years, for boys 45.’ No, no, no! This was indeed the average life expectancy, because of very high infant mortality. But it doesn’t mean adults typically died in their forties. If you made it to adulthood you would most likely make your 60s and quite possibly your 70s.
Overall, then, worth reading to find out lots about brain scanners and such, but skip the first chapter (a tedious introduction) and be prepared to tread lightly elsewhere.
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

This is Improbable – Marc Abrahams ****

The Ig Nobel Prize has become something of an institution in the science world. Year after year, respected scientists turn up to have their leg pulled about the topic of an academic paper they have had published (or occasionally a patent application). The man behind the Ig Nobels, Marc Abrahams, writes a column on ‘improbable research’ and this book is a collection of these articles, though often enhanced for the book form.
The tag line of the Ig Nobels is that it is for research that makes you laugh… then makes you think. This is true, although you often think ‘I don’t know how they ever managed to get funding for that research,’ or ‘How could they have the front to present that as science?’ A classic example of the latter is a piece where the incidence of wearing high heeled shoes is correlated with the rise of schizophrenia. It’s hard to start on what’s wrong with this paper – particularly the Science 101 error of confusing correlation with causality. It really is excruciating.
Others are just hilarious in the phrasing. My overall favourite was one on the mechanical properties of cheese. I nearly fell off the chair when reading that research ‘reported a change in the stress-strain behaviour of Gouda cheese when plates were lubricated with oil as opposed to when they were covered with emery paper.’ Boggle.
My only concern is that these things work better on an occasional exposure rather than a whole bookful at once. I found myself in overload reading the thing end to end – it meant that I found some topics a bit dull. I think this would be a book that is better dipped into (kept in the obvious location, I guess) than devoured in one sitting.
Inevitably Improbable makes for a good gift book – excellent for anyone of a scientific bent – or just to keep yourself amused in spare moments. I am assured that Abrahams didn’t make any of these papers up – but you will find it hard to believe.
Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Nano Nightmares – Brian Clegg

Nanotechnology, like genetically modified food or nuclear power, often produces a knee-jerk reaction. It’s somehow ‘not natural’ and so is considered scary and dangerous. This is primarily a reaction to words, the same way that it easy for advertisers to push emotional buttons with ‘natural’ as good and ‘artificial’ as bad.

This is a silly distinction. There is a lot in nature that is very dangerous indeed – and much that is artificial protects us from that. If you doubt this, try removing everything artificial when you are flying in a plane over shark infested waters. For that matter, many of the most virulent poisons like ricin and botulinus toxin are natural. Water crammed with bacteria and faecal matter is natural. Clean, safe drinking water from a tap is artificial. Yet we can’t help reacting like puppets when the advertisers use those magic words.
What we’re not talking about – nano machines
Some concerns about nanotechnology are down to what is at best futurology and at worst science fiction. Prince Charles infamously caused headlines back in 2003, when newspapers reported ‘The prince has raised the spectre of the “grey goo” catastrophe in which sub-microscopic machines designed to share intelligence and replicate themselves take over and devour the planet.’
Charles later denied ever meaning this, commenting that he never used the expression ‘grey goo’ and saying ‘I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet. Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction.’ But he certainly did express concerns that not enough was being done to assess and manage any risk associated with the use of nanotechnology.
Unlike the grey goo headlines, this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. The very nature of nanotechnology implies using substances in physical formats that our bodies might not have encountered, and hence we can’t make assumptions without appropriate testing and risk assessment.
If we are to be sensible about this, we need to first avoid a blanket response to nanotechnology. You would be hard pressed to find a reason for being worried about the impact of nanometer thin coatings, such as that used by P2i (sponsors of the Nature’s Nanotech series) There is a big difference between manipulating coatings at the nanoscale and manufacturing products with nanoparticles and small nanotubes.
A carbon nanotube
We know that breathing in nanoparticles, like those found in soot in the air, can increase risk of lung disease, and there is no reason to think that manufactured nanoparticles would be any less dangerous than the natural versions. When some while ago the Soil Association banned artificial nanoparticles from products they endorsed, I asked them why only artificial particles. Their spokesperson said that natural ones are fine because ‘life evolved with these.’
This, unfortunately, is rubbish. You might as well argue it is okay to put natural salmonella into food because ‘life evolved with it.’ Life also evolved with cliffs, but it doesn’t make falling off them any less dangerous. There is no magic distinction between a natural and an artificial substance when it comes to chemical makeup, and in practice if there is risk from nanoparticles it is likely to be from the physics of their very small size, rather than anything about their chemistry.
There are three primary concerns about nanoparticles – what will happen if we breathe them, eat them and put them on our skin. The breathing aspect is probably the best understand and is already strongly legislated on in the UK – we know that particulates in the air can cause a range of diseases and have to be avoided. There is really no difference here between the need to control nanoparticles and any other particles and fibres we might breathe. Whenever a process throws particulates into the air it ought to be controlled. (And this applies to the ‘natural’ smoke from wood fires, say, which is high in dangerous particulates, as well as any industrial process.)
When it comes to food, we have good coverage from The House of Lords Science and Technology committee in a 2010 report. They point out that nanotechnologies have a range of possible applications in food that could benefit both consumers and industry. ‘These include creating foods with unaltered taste but lower fat, salt or sugar levels, or improved packaging that keeps food fresher for longer or tells consumers if the food inside is spoiled.’
The committee’s report sensibly argued ‘Our current understanding of how [nanoparticles] behave in the human body is not yet advanced enough to predict with any certainty what kind of impact specific nanomaterials may have on human health. Persistent nanomaterials are of particular concern, since they do not break down in the stomach and may have the potential to leave the gut, travel throughout the body, and accumulate in cells with long-term effects that cannot yet be determined.’
Their recommendation was not to abandon these technologies, but rather that it was essential to perform appropriate research, preferably across the EU, to check the impact of such nanomaterials when consumed, and to ensure that all such materials that interact differently with the body from ordinary foodstuffs are assessed for risk before they are allowed onto the market. This seems eminently sensible.
The final area, applying nanoparticles to the skin, is perhaps most urgent, because most of apply them on a regular basis. Most sun defence products, and a number of cosmetics contain them. It is hard to find a good reason to allow for any risk in a pure cosmetic, and arguably they should be prevented from containing nanoparticles. But the story is more nuanced with sun creams.
Most sunscreens contain particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These invisible particles, ranging from nanoscale to significantly larger, provide most of the sunscreen’s protection against dangerous ultraviolet. What has to be weighed up is the benefits of using products to prevent a cancer that kills over 65,000 people a year worldwide – and would kill many more if sunscreens weren’t used – against a risk that has not been associated with any known deaths.
The potential for these nanoparticles to cause harm depends on them penetrating through the outer layers of the skin to reach cells where they could cause damage. In theory a nanoparticle is capable of doing this. But the current evidence is that the particles remain on the surface of the skin and do not reach viable skin cells. Skin cancer is a particular risk in Australia, so this is a topic that has been studied in depth there. As Cancer Council Australia concludes: ‘there is no credible evidence that sunscreens containing nanoparticles pose a health risk. There is plenty of evidence however, proving that sunscreen can help reduce the risk of skin cancer, in particular non-melanoma skin cancer.’
Overall, then, we should not be lax about nanoparticles and their effect on our bodies. We need careful testing and where necessary regulation. But equally we should not be swayed into knee-jerk reactions by emotional words carrying little meaning.
Images from iStockPhoto

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Islands of Benoit Mandelbrot – Nina Samuel (Ed.) **

Benoit Mandelbrot was the poster-boy of chaos and fractals, in a sense literally as the graphic version of his Mandelbrot set occupied many an arty poster in its time. There’s no doubt Mandelbrot himself did lots of marvellous work from his analysis of cotton production to his ‘how far is at around the coastline of the UK’ and, yes, his remarkable set. But the trouble with the arty associations of that image means he tends to get dragged into a lot of stuff that is peripheral and verges on pseudo-science.
The antennae were raised by the subtitle of this book: ‘Fractals, chaos and the materiality of thinking.’ Is ‘materiality’ even a word?
It also doesn’t help that this book is a collection of articles. There is no narrative thrust – it’s not going anywhere. Allegedly the book shows how ‘images actually further knowledge.’ There is an element of truth in that idea, though it sounds rather like wishful thinking on the part of arty people who want to be scientific. But the approach taken – to use images found in the late Dr Mandelbrot’s office smacks of opportunism with no great interest in imparting wisdom.
One or two of the pieces are worth dipping into , particularly the one on ‘Nature in Mandelbrot’s Geometry’, but many of them are not worth wasting time on. Overall this is certainly not popular science. In fact it’s hard to see what it is, except self-indulgant.
Review by Peter Spitz

The Flame of Miletus – John Freely ***

It is fashionable to play down the importance of the ancient Greeks, noting that other civilizations – China, for instance – we also cradles of scientific thought. But that misses the point. Modern science has a clear ancestry: ancient Greeks, Arab world, Europe, Worldwide. There is no doubt that amazing work was done elsewhere, and to some extent (e.g. with Indian mathematics) has been a side feed to this process, but most of the early development of science that occurred in parallel with the ancient Greeks proved to be evolutionary dead ends.
The fact is, tracing back where our modern science came from, the ancient Greeks were the first in that family tree to shift from what they called the work of theologi (theologians) to physikoi (physicists) – from a worldview where things happened because the gods willed it, to one of natural explanations for the world around us. And so we really ought to be better acquainted with what went on back then.
Like most popular science writers I usually give a hat tip to the ancient Greeks, but in a decidedly summary fashion. In The Flame of Miletus, John Freely sets out to give us chapter and verse.
For the first few chapters I was rather excited and prepared to give the book a solid four stars, as it really sets the scene well with the early folk like Thales, Anaximander and Pythagoras. Unfortunately as we get further in, it all gets a bit samey. With philosopher after philosopher we get a quick bit of historical context and then a rather plodding description of what’s in their books. That early promise isn’t carried through. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good stuff in here, and it gives an excellent background to the different ideas that came out of Greece and influenced scientific thought for over 1500 years. But it becomes more of a dull reference and less of an interesting read.
I also wish Freely had stuck to the ancients. In a couple of final chapters he carries things forward to the renaissance and this is inevitably rushed. Though not too bad on the Arab scholars and Galileo, it’s fairly sketchy on everything else (Roger Bacon, for instance, isn’t even mentioned). This effective appendix seemed unnecessary: I would rather the author had used the effort put into it to get more life into the important chapters.
Overall, then, a valuable insight into this period, but could have been more readable.
Review by Brian Clegg

Can We Travel Through Time – Michael Brooks ***

 It can be something of a struggle to make a book stand out, to make it different from the crowd. In this case, Quercus Books has achieved the different feel by giving The Big Questions: Physics the appearance of a notebook. It’s a hardback with an elastic closure (the black stripe in the picture), just like many notebooks. I’ve a suspicion it’s one of those novelties that seemed a good idea at the time – all it does for the reader is get in the way a bit, though you can use it as a bookmark, but it does at least make the book, or rather the series, distinctive.

My suspicion is that the whole approach didn’t work, as the paperback is a conventional design and has been retitled to pull out just one of the questions – Can We Travel Through Time (a question that isn’t really answered in the book – for that you need my How to Build a Time Machine).

Although the book is an individual one by Michael Brooks, the series is a significant one in getting a feel for this title. Edited by professor of philosophy Simon Blackburn, it ‘confronts the fundamental problems of science and philosophy.’ Because of this context, it has quite a different feel to many popular science books.
One impact is an undesirable one. There is considerably less historical and human context than there is in a normal popular science book. Although it contains most of the key aspects of physics, it does so always from the point of view of the science, rather than the people involved and how the scientific ideas were developed. This is a shame, because it’s a big part of the appeal of popular science. That’s what is taken away. What is added is (not surprisingly) more of a philisophical slant. So, for instance, we have considerably more on the possible interpretations of quantum theory than you would normally find in such a book. This was an interesting addition.
Overall it’s always a difficult challenge, trying to take on all of a subject as wide as physics. I recently did this with Egghead Physics, and I respect anyone who can get good coverage. Brooks is strong on twentieth century physics – relativity, quantum theory, particle theory, modern cosmology and the understanding of existence that has emerged from these fields. There is significantly less on areas that were developed sooner but are still important, from mechanics to electricity and magnetism.
The level of the writing was generally quite breezy, readily comprehensible by a non-technical reader, though occasionally the focus on the science with non of the context made it a trifle dull.
On the whole, Brooks gets his contents right, though the chapters feel rather arbitrary and unstructured. Perhaps the only point things go a little astray is when talking about the implications of having an infinite universe. ‘Though it would contain infinite numbers of worlds, and thus infinite numbers of worlds with Earth-like life,’ it begins. Whoa there. You can have an infinite universe with just one world in it. Or with infinite worlds of which only one is capable of supporting Earth-like life. Similarly, even if you had an infinite set of worlds all capable of supporting Earth-like life, there wouldn’t have to be many worlds with a replica of you on them, as Brooks suggests. You could have infinite worlds all of which only developed bacterial life, or that never developed mammals. It’s a misunderstanding of infinity to think that as soon as you have an infinite set, you have a set which contains all possible entities.
That apart, it’s a sound book, I’m just not quite sure who it’s aimed at. It’s too lightweight to be a book for physics students, but lacks context for popular science. It’s probably best as a guide to physics for philosophy students, which may have been the intention in the first place.
Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Exploring Evolution – Michael Alan Park ***

In this heavily illustrated hardback, (part of the same series as my Exploring the Universe) small enough to be readable in a way that coffee table book isn’t, but big enough to have some dramatic pictures, Michael Alan Park takes a look at evolution and its context.
The book begins with the age of the Earth and how it has changed over time, takes us through the basics of genetics and its relevance to evolution, examines the way species change over time – and how new species emerge – gives us a chapter with a particular focus on humans (we can’t help but be interested in humans!) and looks at the challenges to evolution from creationism and intelligent design. The final chapter, ‘How has the theory of evolution influenced modern society’ tries to put evolution into the context of its everyday significance, a difficult thing to do that doesn’t quite come off, so it’s an unfortunate ending.
Overall the content is fine – sometimes a little phrased the way an academic rather than a good writer would, but there’s nothing too obscure or incomprehensible. And the images are often stunning, full colour, glossy pages and well presented. It’s certainly a handsome and attractive book. There are one or two bits of the science that could be done better. In the genetics section it’s rather dismissive of the 98% of DNA that’s noncoding, where in reality, the more we learn about it, the more significant it is, showing that genes on their own really don’t tell the story.
I also think the key points about evolution that Dawkins brings out so well in his The Magic of Reality don’t really come across. One of the best bits in Dawkins book was where he imagines the whole pile of photos of ancestors for any individual and points out how each individual is the same species as its parents – you never see a species change from generation to generation – which really gets around a lot of the problems some people have with evolution. On the other hand, Park does a lovely reversal of the clockmaker analogy in his creationism section, pointing out that a clock is, in effect, evolved – because the clockmaker doesn’t design all the parts from scratch, but rather uses and adapts existing parts and mechanisms. That was brilliant.
Overall it’s an attractive book with some great illustrations.
Hardback (despite what Amazon says):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 12 October 2012

Poor Robin’s Prophecies – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

This is an unusual one. It’s reminiscent of that quote on Wagner’s music. Not Woody Allen’s (I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.) or Oscar Wilde’s (I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.) but Rossini’s – Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but awful quarters of an hour.
That probably makes the book sound worse than it is (unless you like Wagner). The concept is brilliant. It is looking back at a seventeenth/eighteenth century phenomenon and using it as a hook on which to hang an assessment of the everyday approach to maths in England in that time. The phenomenon in question is Poor Robin’s Prophesies, a long running almanac. In general almanacs were annual publications that threw in what the authors thought of as lots of useful information, from saints’ days to tide tables, with a good dollop of astrology to add zest. Poor Robin was initially primarily a satirical attack on the other almanacs, including saints days like Robin Hood and the day Jane fell off the hen-roost.
Author Benjamin Wardhaugh is at his best when looking at the almanacs and their quirky view on life in those interesting times. Where the book falls down a little is the lengthy sections on how the basics of maths were taught back then, including lengthy commentary on some maths notebooks of the period. I am interested in maths, but these parts left me cold.
There is no doubt there are some real delights here, primarily in the bits that have little to do with science or maths and everything to do with the culture of the period. And it should be of interest to any historian of mathematics. But it’s not a book for everyone.
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 8 October 2012

Mick O’Hare – Four Way Interview

Mick O’Hare is the editor of numerous popular science books taken from his column The Last Word, found inside New Scientist magazine. He is also production editor at the publication. His degree was in geology but he retains a healthy disregard for rocks. He I as as passionate about science as he is about rugby league, malt whisky and Formula 1, which is saying something. His latest title is Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?
Why science?
Because it’s the story of the rational. It can, ultimately, explain everything, although what constitutes everything and its limits are constantly shifting. Nonetheless it’s the only process we possess that can give us answers to our questions based on evidence rather than irrationality. And as such it should be embraced by every free-thinking person. It can also tell us why snot is green and what earwax is for. Which keeps me in work.
Why this book?
We just can’t stop. All the previous books in the series have proved popular and there was a clamour for more. And, without wanting to offer a gratuitous plug, we’ve figured out what makes a great question and what brings in the best responses. So in my opinion the books get better and better. Last of all, I also got free reign this time to include a chapter on two of my favourite things: James Bond and martinis, although I have to admit I prefer mine with gin, not vodka.
What’s next?
Other than handling the press calls when the book comes out, it’s back to the coal face. New Scientist is a weekly magazine and there’s always something to do. And I fancy expanding the chapter I mentioned on martinis into a book on the entire science of cocktails.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
What should be exciting me is watching governments make decisions based on scientific evidence rather than gut feeling and off-the-cuff thinking. But in the inevitable absence of that I guess it’s figuring out how Weetabix sticks to the bowl, how they might get the gold out of the back of the coach at the end of the Italian Job, and – most of all – next year’s Rugby League World Cup to be held in Britain.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Simon Flynn – Four Way Interview

Simon Flynn has degrees in chemistry and philosophy and worked at publisher Icon Books for fifteen years, becoming managing director. Always driven by an urge to communicate science, he has recently left the publishing world to train to be a science teacher. His book The Science Magpie is an entertaining cornucopia of science trivia and history.
Why science?
I love nearly everything about it. Obviously this includes the archetypes of science such as laws, processes, theories etc. But I also really enjoy those things that extend beyond science as just a body of knowledge – the personalities, the stories, its relationship with society, and so on.
Why this book?
Following on from the above, The Science Magpie is the sort of book I’d enjoy reading and it allowed me to explore further some of the great variety of science mentioned in the previous answer. But as well as those lofty themes, it also gave me the opportunity to demonstrate science’s more humorous side (in my opinion at least).
What’s next?
Learning, teaching, learning, teaching… I’ve just begun a PGCE in Science, specialising in Chemistry, and am about to start my first school experience. This year is a really important one for me.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Getting the richer and deeper understanding of science that becoming a teacher of it will entail. On a more specific level, I find epigenetics absolutely fascinating and it is an area that genuinely matters to everyone, which can’t be said of all scientific research.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin – Mick O’Hare (Ed.) ****

Welcome to the latest in New Scientist‘s hugely popular quirky science answers series. As with its predecessors, we have here what ought to be a disaster, as it’s a book made up of a series of columns from newspapers. With a few exceptions, these are, frankly uninspiring books that are very cheap to produce, and it shows. But because the questions are so fascinating, the books culled from the New Scientist‘s Last Word column continue to be a delight.
I think the reason they are so successful is because they tap into the reason human beings are driven to do science. Curiosity. That nagging urge to get an answer to the question ‘Why?’ that drives every conversation with a five year old. As Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory demonstrates, to maintain such a level of questioning into adulthood would be irritating indeed – but it is the residue of that childhood curiosity that thankfully makes us interested in all things scientific.
Without that drive the questions would have become dull after a book or two, but in practice they still keep coming up with crackers, from silly but burning questions like ‘Why do we have earwax?’ to seriously interesting subjects like whether we will ever be able to truly communicate with dolphins and, perhaps most important of all, whether they ever would have got the gold out of the coach in The Italian Job.
The only criticism I have is the means of getting answers. The answers also come from readers writing in. I can see this minimises effort for the editor, and is entertaining for those who write in, but it does mean that some of the answers are a bit questionable. The very first answer, about squeaky cheese gives a suggestion for why we don’t like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard that does not fit with the research I’ve seen. And there is another example where two separate questions appear to have contradictory answers, both of which are accepted by the editor without question. One says ‘Air at a given temperature can only hold a certain amount of water vapour: the colder it is, the less it can hold.’ Fifty pages later we read ‘The belief that warm air can hold more water was disproved in 1802…’ Confusing. Maybe there could be a bit more fact checking.
Despite this slight moan, this remains a solid gold series that will entertain science enthusiasts (who haven’t already read them in the back of New Scientist) everywhere.
Review by Brian Clegg