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The Velocity of Honey – Jay Ingram ****

Science isn’t just about fundamentals like quantum theory or how DNA works – there’s plenty of science in the oddities of everyday life, and that’s what Jay Ingram sets out to put in front of us in this enjoyable book. How does honey flow, why does toast land butter side down, and why do trees put a lot of effort into turning leaves red, only to have them fall off soon after? These and many other questions are Ingram’s delightful areas of investigation.
Some examples are rather better than others. Chapters about the way we “echo locate”, sensing the presence of objects in the dark by reflected sound like a poor cousin of a bat, and on what Ingram calls the “tourist illusion”, where a journey to a new place in a car always seems to take longer than the journey home, proved surprise hits. There’s also something particularly fascinating about the whole business of six degrees of separation – the idea that pretty well everyone on the planet is, on average, just a chain of six contacts away from everyone else. This has spawned all sorts of spin-offs, like the research on actors appearing in movies with other actors (or even the degrees of separation of superheroes in the Marvel comics), but the most fascinating aspect of Ingram’s exploration is that the initial premise is based on a small amount of very flawed research.
Among the other chapters that intrigued was one on the related concept of the surprising number of people each of us know, and surely no one can resist a piece on the ancient art of skipping stones on water (ducks and drakes)? Inevitably the book is a little episodic – in fact it feels more like a collection of articles stuck together than a true book. And, surprisingly, some of it is rather dull. All too often we get a string of “this team of scientists did this” and “that team of scientists did that” and “no one’s quite sure what it all means”, which can be a trifle yawn inspiring, rather than awe inspiring.
That said, most of the book reads very well and Ingram has a gentle, friendly style with a light touch of humour. It falls short of being a great popular science book as it lacks unputdownability – but it’s certainly a good one, better for reading a section at a time rather than end-to-end, making it ideal for bedtime reading.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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