Skip to main content

How Slow Can You Waterski? – Simon Rogers (Ed.) ****

There has been a rash of these collections of pithy and often witty science articles in the last few years. They tend to emerge from newspapers, as a handy way of squeezing a little more money out of columns and this is no exception – taken from a column called “This week – the science behind the news” in the Guardian, probably the best of the UK’s national newspapers when it comes to science coverage. This cut and paste book production can produce very mixed results, but I’m pleased to say that this particular offering stands up very well.
When short pieces like this are readable and not too patronising (or painful in their weak humour) they can be real page turners. It’s very easy to think “I’ll just read another”, then “maybe one more” and before you know it, you are half way through the book. Oddly, the weakest sections were the earlier ones, concentrating on health and babies and such – perhaps these were deemed to be the ones most of interest to the non-science reader. But all are good and some are excellent. (I can’t help pointing out, though, the danger of making scientific predictions. In What Makes a Planet a Planet, we’re told “it’s probably too late” to stop calling Pluto a planet, even though it’s now hard to justify it being one. Sadly the book came out just a week or two after Pluto was demoted.)
One puzzle that might have occurred to you is why they picked out that particular topic as the title of the book. It’s certainly not one of the more interesting topics. I think it’s because, unlike some of the competition, they don’t concentrate on really weird scientific questions, but ones of genuine interest. The Guardian has something of a history of coming up with witty headlines, but these haven’t been applied here – they’re straightforward labels on topics that are genuinely interesting, but don’t have that bizzaro feel beloved of those who choose titles for this type of book. So I can tell you that (in a random sample) Do Cats and Dogs Need Sunscreen, How Heavy Can a Baby Get, Do Badgers Spread Bovine TB, Why Do Aircraft Wings Now Go Up At The Ends and How Can I Learn to Hold My Breath Like a Freediver are all excellent, even if they don’t necessarily shout out “book title” (I’d have gone with the cats and dogs rather than the waterskier, though).
It’s not going to give you any great insights into the big scientific questions of the day, but that doesn’t stop it being good scientific fun.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…