Skip to main content

Moonstruck - Ernest Naylor ***

There is something uniquely beguiling about the moon. The sun might be the serious luminary power source of the solar system, but it is simply too bright to be aware of any detail without specialist equipment. But everyone can admire the full moon in all its glory. In writing Moonstruck, subtitled 'how lunar cycles affect life', Ernest Naylor keeps us very aware of this human awareness of the moon, constantly throwing in moon myths and beliefs alongside detailed information on the way that the moon, and more often its indirect influence through the tides, influences mostly aquatic behaviour.

While Naylor is sticking to sealife he is on home territory and authoritative, though for the general reader there is perhaps rather too much cataloguing of how various species behave or mate or whatever in subtly different ways dependent on the phase of the moon and the state of the tides.

Where things get a lot more slippery is when Naylor moves onto land animals, and particularly humans, where the general feeling seems to be that most studies show no evidence of an influence. When there is an apparent correlation, there is usually a conflicting study that doesn't agree. This topic seems to have the same problem that ghost hunters have with taking a scientific approach. In the scientific method, the null hypothesis is interesting in its own right. If, for instance, physicists discovered that there were no gravitational waves, it would have a major impact on general relativity and would be fascinating (and possibly Nobel Prize winning). But if ghost hunters consistently discover no ghosts, they just get dispirited. (Sorry.) So there is a higher than usual temptation in such circumstances to cherry pick data to support the researcher's desired outcome. Unfortunately the whole business of finding ways that the moon might influence sleep patterns or libido or whatever seemed exactly the same. A field where enthusiasts are in search of supporting evidence.

It didn't help that Naylor repeatedly told us that 'sceptics think this' and 'sceptics would point out there is no evidence yet' which began to grate after a while. Throw in a decidedly dubious timing of the Big Bang at 9.5 billion years ago, plus a surprisingly short book for an £18.99 hardback, and we have something of an oddity that read less like a commercial popular science book and more like a personal project.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…