Skip to main content

Why Does a Ball Bounce – Adam Hart-Davis ****

… and 100 other questions from the world of science the title continues, in case balls and their bouncing aren’t your favourite topic (oddly the cover images and the text only allow us 99 other questions, but the real book in front of me proudly insists on 100).
The book consists of 101 pairs of pages – one with text, the other with a striking colour photograph taken by author. It’s beautifully produced, and that’s part of its attraction. The text is simple, entertaining and eyecatching. Adam Hart-Davis is a popular TV presenter in the UK, specializing in history of technology, and he has this sort of thing off to a fine art.
At their best, the entries are concise and fun. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of space for text, so some of the entries are so condensed that they miss out some of the best bits. For example, a piece on the age of the earth gives over nearly half the text to Archbishop Usher’s delightful attempt at calculating the age from the bible, dating it back to 4004 BC, and most of the rest to Charles Lyell’s geological work. Hart-Davis then throws into the last sentence that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old without giving any clue as to how this figure (which certainly isn’t Lyell’s) was reached. A little later, he asks why flames are bright, but never mentions why hot things give off light, which seems odd. And again, when commenting on the colours of the rainbow, Hart-Davis tells us that Newton saw seven colours, without pointing out why Newton identified this particular number of colours (because he thought light, like sound, ought to operate in octaves).
However, this desire for extra content aside, the book has a fascinatingly eclectic combination of good basic science, like the stuff about light, weird and wonderful stuff like the rocks that appear to move at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley (though the “why” of this one is very much speculation), and items where there’s a certain tendency to reply to the title question on the page with a brisk “Who cares?”, like the magnificently irrelevant question, “What is brimstone?”
If there’s a problem with the book apart from the fact that it should have at least three times as much text per item, it’s that it uncomfortably straddles the market between a children’s book and an adult book, which is why we’ve listed it as both. It would get three stars as an adult coffee table book, but it works best as the sort of delightful children’s book that teases the reader with beautifully fascinating facts, and as such we’ve given it four stars. Probably the ideal age for the reader is 10-14. But having said that, many adults will enjoy its bite-sized wonders, and perhaps be inspired to something with a little more depth.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

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…