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.
If you like QI you will love this book. Like the TV show, it takes a basic theme and then delights in finding all the strange and wonderful reality that can be discovered from that concept. Here the starting point is your body as a vehicle
for exploring science. Some of what you will read is literally about the body, whether it’s the voyage of red blood cells or the paradox of your hair being dead but still part of you. But at other times it will link your body to the bigger world of science – so, for instance, we follow a photon of light from a star in the constellation Orion to your eye, finding out about cosmology and quantum theory along the way.
The main chapter headings start us off from a human hair, a cell of your body, your eyes, your stomach, the dizziness you might feel after going on a theme park ride, sexual attraction and your brain. But each of these sections of the book contains so much more. On the theme park ride, for example, we find out more about the senses, seeing why there are many more than five (how do you know you are upside down if you have your eyes closed? Which of the traditional five detects heat on your skin?) – but also manage to find ourselves in the remarkable world of Einstein’s relativity. Without over-simplifying, this all comes across at a level that would work for secondary school students as well as the general adult reader.
The book will inevitably be compared with Brian Clegg’s very successful Inflight Science – I understand the attraction of that one – it’s wonderful to have with you on a plane journey, or just to explore the science around a flight, not just flying itself. But for me, this one has the edge, because we’ve all got a body that is kind of important to us – and being a bigger book, there is much more room for extending into science and getting better insights. Like Inflight Science there are experiments scattered through the book – I very much liked the linked website which includes a number of experiments you can try online, whether watching a video, trying an optical illusion or interacting with an artificial analyst.
No book is perfect. Although the illustrations are mostly clearer than in Inflight Science one or two still suffer from the murkiness that comes from being reproduced in-page. Although I said Clegg doesn’t over-simplify, at times I really wanted more. There is a good further reading section (enhanced in the website by being able to click through to the books), but on or two of the topics I felt that they had been crammed in because they ought to be there, but that the coverage was more summary than I would have liked. These were relatively few though – mostly they were pitched at the right level.
This is an Alice in Wonderland trip through science. The book starts and ends with looking at yourself in the mirror (typically, Clegg can’t resist exploring why the mirror reverses left and right but not top and bottom). But where Alice encounters absurdity, on our trip through the looking glass, we discover and enjoy the wonders of science. Brilliant stuff.