Skip to main content

The Element in the Room - Helen Arney and Steve Mould *****

Two thirds of the excellent science performance group Festival of the Spoken Nerd have produced an extremely entertaining 'find out more about science by messing around with stuff' book. (The remaining member of the group, Matt Parker, has his own book.)

This is a fun, rambling, joy of a title - Helen Arney and Steve Mould are present as distinct characters, writing individual segments (they even have their own, differently labelled footnotes) which take us through everyday experiences of science in our lives, from the mystery of noodles turning turmeric red, to optical illusions, to a whole host of experiments you can do yourself, including their infamous (and risky) rotating wastebasket vortex inferno.

Although not specifically a book for teenagers, it will certainly go down well with that market as well as adults who like science as entertainment. If it had been too heavily 'Gee, whiz, wow, BANG!' - always a danger with a science show approach to writing books - it could have trivialised the content too much, but there is always enough explanation to give us a feel for the science behind the phenomena that we experience in the book.

I found the humour a little relentless - it works on stage with an audience, but when reading a book, you perhaps want to be treated a little more gently. There were also a couple of factual oddities: in talking about compact fluorescents we are told 'there is no alternative for energy-saving bulbs' - erm, how about the LED bulbs that are making them redundant? And we're told Henry Ford invented the motor car. Really? Plus the very final segment is a bit odd and didn't quite work. But these are minor issues.

What we're left with is a highly entertaining book that provides page-turning science fun - although there are lots of experiments to do, you can still enjoy it by simply reading it. It would be great to dip into while commuting, or to brighten up a rainy Sunday afternoon. Whether you are reading an exploration of the natural radiation we encounter using units of bananas (apparently bananas are slightly radioactive), seeing striking optical illusions or discovering the names that some chemical elements nearly got but missed, you are likely to find out something new and have a better time than ought to be possible from a popular science book.



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…