Tuesday, 15 November 2005

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

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