Skip to main content

It’s Not Rocket Science – Ben Miller *****

Ben Miller is probably best known for playing a detective in the gentle, rather underrated comedy drama Death in Paradise, and as half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, but he studied physics at Cambridge and was en route to a doctorate when he realized that getting a real job was much more useful. (I would like to apply a large kick to Brian Cox for writing the most condescending puff for the book I’ve ever seen: ‘A fun and insightful ride through the whole of science – it’s almost as if he’d finished his PhD.’)
I don’t know why it is, but people always get a little excited when an entertainer has a science qualification. (Think Brian May or Dara O’Briain for instance.) No doubt many others have, say, English or history degrees, but for some reason this doesn’t cause the same amazement. Perhaps the assumption is that all entertainers are a bit, well, thick. But either way we really have to take the book on its merits. And they are considerable.
Miller conducts a rambling tour of some of the best bits (in the terms of being mind boggling) of science. He takes us into the world of particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider, into the depths of the universe and black holes, looks at how the solar system formed, at the wonders of evolution and geology, DNA, the chemistry of cookery, global warming, and how space travel requires Newton’s laws of motion. All this is done in a good humoured light-hearted fashion. Particularly engaging are the sections where he describes how he got into science, his experiences at Cambridge and taking on Gordon Ramsay in making a sponge cake.
I’d say the ideal audience for this book is someone who has never read a popular science book and wants a primer. It is probably too simplistic for any regular science reader, but for the newcomer, Miller’s enthusiasm (much more Magnus Pyke than Brian Cox) is infectious. Just occasionally it gets a bit too childish and hand wavy, but mostly it works well. Admittedly even Miller can’t make geology exciting. And there is one out-and-out error, when he describes Einstein’s 1905 papers as general rather than special relativity, but these are small issues. He hits most of the good bits on the nail (except quantum theory, which is hardly covered at all) and carries the reader along effortlessly.
Not a book for everyone, then, but for teenagers or adults taking a first step into the world of popular science, this is a cracker.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…