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.