Thursday, 3 November 2016

Eureka - Tom Cabot ****

I'm not the most visual person - words mostly work better for me - so I've never entirely understood the appeal of infographics at a gut level, though intellectually I can see that for many people they're a good way to get facts across. It doesn't help that they have a seedy image online, as they are often provided to blogs and websites as free clickbait. However, I couldn't resist the idea of a book that aims to make science more accessible via infographics.

Tom Cabot does not hold back on his topics, covering cosmology with a lot of physics thrown in, the Earth (which slightly oddly includes DNA), life and humans. By far the longest of these is life, with over 40 entries, each a two-page spread of infographics. Each section opens with a text spread and closes with an abstract graphic. When it comes to the infographics themselves, this was one of the rare examples of my thinking 'this book isn't big enough'. I'm not a great fan of the coffee table book, but that format might have been better here, as Cabot crams so much into each spread that the text has to be small and the pages crowded. In some cases - the antimatter sub-diagram, for example - the text was so small I literally couldn't read it.

When dealing with a relatively straightforward topic, this approach works beautifully. Take, for instance, the electromagnetic radiation page. We have a full width e/m spectrum across the page with all sorts of goodies pinging off it to tell us about everything from 'Whistlers' (very low frequency radio waves, apparently) through to gamma rays, plus a sideline in explaining blackbody radiation. With more complex topics it felt as if you had to know a little bit already to cope with the complexity of the graphic layout. Take, for instance, the spread on relativity. Sensibly this only really covered general relativity (though it didn't point out that the special version was missing). There's a lot going on here and its quite difficult to pick your way through it. There's a classic 'bowling ball/rubber sheet' illustration, a really interesting gravity wave spectrum diagram, Ligo outputs and many text boxes, but no clear structure for the reader to grasp. I think part of the problem is that the classic infographic has a clear reading direction - they're tall and thin and you read down them from top to bottom. The spreads here are a splatter of information and it's hard to know how to take them in.

For me, the life/human sections were where the book really succeeded. This is because the fundamentals of the science here are a lot simpler. This might not seem the case when you look at the beautiful graphics of enzyme molecules or the human metabolic pathways, but the thing is that the concepts - the building blocks for the infographic - are mostly simple, it's just the resultant constructs that aren't. In physics and cosmology, getting the far more complex concepts into an infographic form mean they either have to be highly simplified, or presented at too high a level for a beginner - or, in practise, both of these at the same time - which makes the spread a little less satisfying.

Some of the most effective spreads are amongst the simplest - because the impact really comes through best without getting overwhelmed. I loved, for example, the 'gills versus lungs' spread which compared the two ways of getting oxygen, comparing things like viscosity, density and oxygen content of air and water in graphic form. Similarly, the 'human anatomy' spread which takes a Vitruvian Man style skeleton and tells us when the various components (e.g. strong wrist, chin, large brain) evolved. I'm sure my paleontological friends would dispute some of the evolutionary history (they always do), but it provided one of many 'Hmm, that's interesting' moments. Having said this, there could, perhaps, have been a little more variety in the way data was presented graphically - the same styles were used repeatedly without some of the familiar infographic tricks of, for example, representing populations as arrays of representative images.

There is a Kindle version of the book, incidentally, but it's not going to work on a classic black and white e-ink Kindle - go for paper unless you have a good, high resolution colour screen.

Eureka is no substitute for a 'proper' popular science book because good writing always has a core of narrative, of story telling, where an infographic is a relentless collection of facts - more akin the Guinness Book of Records than a great non-fiction title. But there is a big market for fact books, and this is surely one of the best ways to present them. Using infographics this way is innovative and fun, and is likely to bring in readers who wouldn't touch conventional science writing, which surely has to be a good thing. I think maybe it could have been pitched for a slightly wider audience, but it's still a remarkable book and scores highly for taking an original approach.

Review by Brian Clegg

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