Skip to main content

The Geek Guide to Life - Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi ***

There's no reason at all why good popular science should be heavy and loaded with leading edge theory. I've a lot of time for fun and/or practical science facts type books, which The Geek Guide to Life promises to be - the subtitle tells us its about 'science's solutions to life's little problems' with examples such as 'how to boil the perfect egg' and 'how to rock at rock, paper, scissors.'

The text by Colin Stuart and Mun Keat Looi does a solid job of covering a whole range of questions in two or four page spreads. Sometimes the titles of the articles overreach themselves - for example, there is one headed 'How to cure an hangover' which half way through, in response to 'But, I hear you cry, how do I get rid of my hangover?' remarks 'Sadly, science doesn't have a clear answer to that question.' Inevitably, that headline feels a bit overblown at this point. 

I was less enthusiastic about the illustrations - for no obvious reason other than the word 'geek' in the title of the book, the illustrator decided to provide us with highly pixellated illustrations as if they were being rendered in a 1980s video game. This probably seemed a good idea at the time... but makes for pretty poor graphics. Sometimes also there seemed to be limited coordination between the text and graphics. So, for instance, in a section labelled 'What's the best way to commute to work' the graphic is a bar chart showing relatively happiness of various commute times compared with a 1 to 15 minute travel time. There are several interesting features. People seem happier with a 31-45 minute commute that 16-30 minutes - and by far the best are working from home (not surprising) and a 3 hour or more commute (more surprising). None of this is referenced in the text, which just said the contradictory 'the longer someone's commute, the lower their level of life satisfaction.' Similarly in the 'How to Kick Ass at Monopoly' article, the text refers to the UK square names, while the illustration of the board shows the US names.

Having said that, I found the section on games (how to do better at the likes of Monopoly and Rock, Paper, Scissors) was probably the most fun part of the book. One of the problems of the more serious parts is that the short article approach is not always capable of providing effective guidance. So, if we look at 'how to save money at the supermarket' it's all about avoiding impulse buys and not buying stuff you don't need right now. The trouble is, if this is your sole tactic and you buy a product regularly with a long shelf life that is sometimes a lot cheaper than at other times, you will spend far more than if you buy extra when it is on sale.

Overall, there's no doubt the book is fun, but it does feel more than a little shallow. To be honest, I would rather Stuart and Looi had been allowed to write twice as much text and we lost the graphics. Nevertheless there were some genuine take home points here - and I expect to win at Monopoly next time I play, or I will be asking for my money back.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

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…

A turnround from Tyson

I am delighted that one of our reviewers has been able to give a five star review to Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book. The astrophysicist has taken over Carl Sagan's old post as the number one science populariser in the US, but his written output in the past has been patchy, to say the least.

There have been at least two significant problems. One is dubious history of science. For example, in the cases of both Galileo and Bruno he has passed on undiluted the comic book version of history where Galileo is persecuted for mentioned heliocentricity (rather than his disastrous political handling of the  pope) and mutters 'Eppur si muove!' at his trial, and Bruno is burned at the stake for his advanced scientific ideas (both misrepresentations). Some argue that it getting history of science accurate doesn't matter if we get the right message about science across - but if we are prepared to distort historical data, why should anyone take scientific data seriously?

The o…