Skip to main content

Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat – Brad Wetzler ****

Science magazines often have a page for answering the “dumb” questions we all like to ask – and the answers make a ready-made collection for a book. Scientific American and New Scientist have both done this – now Outside Magazine‘s “The Wild File” gets its second collection (the first, called Why Moths Hate Thomas Edison wasn’t available for review at the time of writing).
The style here is slightly more laid back and facetious than the columns from the general science magazines, but the effect is very readable and easily digested.
Brad Wetzler is the contributing editor responsible for the column – chances are, the way magazines work, that words aren’t always his, but he’s responsible for the overall feel, and gives us some excellent insights into the natural world. Not surprisingly, given the the magazine this features in, these are mostly nature questions, though the book does begin with an astronomy section before moving on to your body, the planet and living creatures (plants included). As is often the case with these collections, some of the most enjoyable answers are those that shatter old wives tales and “common knowledge”, such as “you lose most of your body heat through your head (so wear a hat)” – wrong. Or “does hot tea cool you in hot weather” – sorry, no. Others are just those sort of questions children delight in asking, and the child in all of us wants to know the answer to (can African and Indian elephants mate, for example). Others are just plain odd – for example, how far can you get away from a McDonalds in the US. But it’s fair to say there’s not one of these little factoids that isn’t quirkily interesting.
The only real criticisms are for the tendency to end a piece with a fairly lame witicism (e.g. on a query about the return of the “dust bowl” phenomenon referred to in the novel The Grapes of Wrath, we are told “Forget about migrating to California, and stock up on Evian while you can.”), and the missed opportunities. The answers to questions quite often seem to miss out on great opportunities to throw in a “wow factor” piece of information. For example, the question about why the moon often appears large near moonrise misses the surprising fact that the actual visual size of the moon is as small as the hole in a punched piece of paper held at arms length. And the answer to the question “I’ve heard it’s sometimes possible to see stars during the middle of the day. True?” misses the opportunity to dispose of the old chestnut that you can see stars from the bottom of a well or up a chimney. Not the end of the world by any means, but a pity.
All in all, though, an easy read of bite-sized delights, idea to fill in a few minutes on the train or simply to get some answers to those infuriatingly obvious questions that no one seems to bother answering. Something that’s amazing about this sort of book is, though there are several around, they all seem to come up with enough new and engaging questions to be well worth reading. Great fun.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…