Skip to main content

The Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations – W. F. Bynum & Roy Porter *****

This is a wonderful book.
My immediate reaction to my enthusiasm is concern. How sad is that, to be excited by a dictionary? But to be fair, this reviewer is a science writer, so in getting excited about the ODSQ I’m merely praising a superb tool of the trade.
The fact remains, this is one of the few dictionaries I’ve felt a strong urge to sit down and read through from cover to cover. Of course, dictionaries of quotations are much more fun than the boring old definition variety, but somehow there’s something very special about a collection of science quotes.
The sources are the expected ones, a mix of scientists and less obvious people talking about science (John Donne’s in there, for instance). The purist might argue that the chunks given to the ancient Greeks and the like are stretching a point, because they were talking about philosophy rather than science – but that’s a silly and unnecessary distinction. The book falls into the usual Oxford quotations format, arranged by author in alphabetical order, but with a large cross-referencing index at the back, so you can find appropriate quotes on the subject of your choice.
If you suspect it’s going to be all dry and heavy – think again. Of course there are the portentous remarks, but there’s plenty of lightness too. Take this snippet from a quotation from Alexander Todd, when attempting to get some cigarettes at the bar of a wartime defence establishment. Todd was asked his rank by the barman. “I am afraid I haven’t got one,” I answered.
“Nonsense – everyone who comes in here has a rank.”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t have one.”
“Now that puts me in a spot,” said the barman, “for orders about cigarettes in this camp are clear – 20 for officers and ten for other ranks. Tell me what exactly are you?”
Now I really wanted those cigarettes so I drew myself up and said “I am the Professor of Chemistry at Manchester University.”
The barman contemplated me for about thirty seconds and then said “I’ll give you five.”
As the late lamented Stanley Unwin would have said, deep joy. Rush don’t walk to the bookstore and get it.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…