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How the Ray Gun Got its Zap – Stephen Wilk ****

In Stephen Wilk’s How the Ray Gun got its Zap two key factors for a science book’s effectiveness go into a head-to-head battle and neither entirely wins – yet the outcome is rarely bad and sometimes downright fun.
The downside comes from the way the book is put together. It is a set of essays, an after-the-writing compilation, which is an approach that never makes for as effective reading as a book that is actually written as a book. However, some of Wilk’s topics are hugely entertaining or informative, and some even achieve the pop sci nirvana of managing to be both.
What we have here are optical physics essays (they are a bit too formal and stiff to call articles) on topics ranging from the earliest attempts to put together a mathematical rule behind refraction to the possible nature of tractor beams. The book is divided into three sections, history, weird science and pop culture, and it is arguable that they become more interesting as you go through them.
I love history of science, but the danger with taking an academic approach to it in a book for a general audience is that you spend far too much time picking at little details that only an expert could love, and as a result lose your audience’s attention. I felt this was the case with some of the historical pieces. The story and drama necessary for popular science (which is there in spades when we discover the obscure wonder of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg or the background to the Crookes radiometer) becomes lost amongst the technical details and careful attribution of every little contribution to too many names. In the second and third sections there was far more opportunity for interesting storytelling, which the author particularly seems to enjoy when talking about science fiction – and when he is enjoying himself, we enjoy it too.
Overall, this is a book that is well worth the effort of getting through the less interesting pieces (the essay format makes skipping easy if you feel rebellious) to find plenty of gems. A good cue is that generally speaking if spectroscopy or ‘color centers’ (the author’s speciality) are mentioned, the item is likely to to be less approachable. But How the Ray Gun is  well worth persevering with, as you will be rewarded with both plenty of optics-based entertainment and some excellent knowledge, worthy of Stephen Fry and QI.
Review by Brian Clegg


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