Skip to main content

Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down – Richard Robinson ****

Richard Robinson’s delightful book is an exploration of the science behind Murphy’s Law (the truism that can be roughly stated as “if something can go wrong, it will”) – not just the simple probability tricks that fool our brains with such consistency – if we were any good at probabilities, there wouldn’t be a casino business – but also the many ways our brains can fool us.
Robinson begins by giving a little background to the brain itself, then moves onto our interactions with the world, and the misunderstandings that arise from them. We learn, for example, the way our eyes (and other senses) can so easily be fooled. Robinson misses one trick when talking about the way the moon appears so much bigger in the “real world” than it does on a photograph – the most amazing fact here is just how small the apparent size of the moon really is, about the same as the hole in a piece of punched paper, held at arms length (if you don’t believe it, try looking through such a hole at the moon) – but he still manages to point out just how easy our senses are to fool (and hence, sadly, why eye witnesses and anecdotes are pretty useless for either testimony in court, or scientific proof).
After taking on the senses, Robinson takes us through the faulty interference of memory, the way our natural tendency to look for patterns and connections can result in misunderstanding and “naive science”, often suggesting causality that doesn’t exist, emotional distortion (rather too much on this) and the impact of social context (it’s all “their” fault), which section would have been better if it didn’t perpetuate Richard Dawkins’ meme concept, popular with the general public, but largely ignored in scientific circles. A final section considers the “pure science” of Murphy’s law – that’s to say the maths, physics and more that mean that things go wrong in the real world even without a misunderstanding from our brains – for example, busses really do tend to bunch up and travel in small packs. All this is helped along by short quotes that reflect Murphy’s law in the particular arena under consideration.
The whole thing is neatly illustrated with a series of cartoons by Kate Charlesworth. These are fun, though both the illustrations and some of Robinson’s wording make it difficult to decide whether this book is aimed at adults or older children – we think it’s a great crossover title that can be appreciated by both.
Incidentally, the book cover illustrates a small subsection of Murphy’s Law that deals with publishers – if you go through several versions of the jacket illustration, you will almost inevitably end up with the wrong one on Amazon – both the covers shown here are supposedly for the same physical book. Both are wrong. The real book actually most closely resembles the bigger version, but the cat has disappeared leaving only the toast (could there have been complaints from the animal rights lobby?)
Overall, entertaining and painlessly educational – what more can you ask of popular science – it’s great as a present, or as a refreshing read to take away the pain of a hard day at work.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…