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 Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…