Friday, 8 September 2006

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

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