Friday, 11 November 2005

The Single Helix – Steve Jones ****

If you talk to fiction publishers, you’d get the impression that no one likes short stories. Short story collections, it seems, just don’t sell. Yet you would think with today’s hectic lifestyle, that they’d be ideal. You can slip one in on the tube/metro/subway. You can fit one into your lunch break. Or maybe read a couple at bedtime. And unlike working through a small section of a novel, you have the reward of completion and closure. I find the public’s reluctance to read short stories odd – I love them.
Similarly, in non-fiction, and popular science in particular, there’s a certain wariness of collections of short pieces. When they’re written by different people, this wariness can be justified, but in a book like The Single Helix, where Steve Jones has collected short pieces he wrote for a newspaper, the effect is very pleasing. Each piece is short enough to fit into that frantic lifestyle. Although there’s inevitably a slight bias towards the biological side, Jones manages to cover a whole swathe of different aspects of science, and the relationship of science to society, in these hundred brief explorations.
This reviewer once had an argument with the publishing director of a UK publisher over the nature of popular science. I believe good popular science should work as bedtime reading, while she thought it had to be hard enough that the reader should be forced to pore over it and make notes in the hope of understanding it. In this instance, it’s very much my school of popular science – each piece is light, highly readable, and informative without being hard work.
Perhaps the only criticism is that the quality of the content varies. This is almost inevitable when writing a regular column – sometimes you struggle to come up with anything of great import. In some of the pieces, there’s not an awful lot of science. Many are well provided with fascinating facts, but some have a very small scientific hook that enables Jones to go off on a bit of a rant on a personal hot topic. Occasionally, too, the brevity of the piece makes it a little frustrating. In one, for example, we’re told that “a single chimp social group in West Africa contains as much genetic diversity as the whole human population.” It would be great to know how that diversity is expressed (call me apeist, but visually chimps seem much less diverse than humans – where are the red haired chimps?)
Another example of variability of content is in tone. Mostly, Jones has a wonderfully approachable, warm style that makes what he is saying ideal for his audience. Now and again, though – most obviously when he has a dig at poor old Prince Charles – that most evil of academic sins is in evidence. Just briefly, his tone suggest that he despises the common herd, and specifically those who dare to have any form of mystical or religious belief. There’s something about academia that makes professors and the like all too aware of their own sense of superiority. To be fair to Steve Jones, he rarely does allow this to come through, but there’s just the occasional slip. That shouldn’t put you off, though (and you may even enjoy the odd sly dig) – these are delicious little written canapés of popular science, just waiting to be eagerly consumed.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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