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The Undercover Scientist – Peter J. Bentley ***
I was very much looking forward to this book, I suspect in part because I had greatly enjoyed the book The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, and was expecting something similar, point out the unexpected science that lurks behind our everyday lives. In a sense, that’s what Peter Bentley sets out to do, but it just doesn’t work the way Harford’s book does.
In part the problem is the context. Bentley has each section start with a running story of everyday disaster, told in the second person, where the protagonist suffers everything from slipping on a wet bathroom floor to breaking a tooth. This whole continuing story is very forced and feels rather amateurish. It is designed to fit his descriptions of how everyday science works into a framework, but that framework wasn’t necessary. Like Harford’s economist, there was no need to do anything more than pick up on the really revelatory bits of science in everyday life.
The other way that the book fails in comparison with Harford’s is that where the economics in Harford’s book was a surprise to everyone but an economist, here a lot of the science is so everyday and basic that it’s hard to get too excited about it. There are moments of ‘gosh, that’s interesting,’ but they tend to be overwhelmed by a sea of so-what. The same underwhelmedness, I’m afraid, goes for the cover. When I saw it, I thought it was a boiund-proof, one of the cheap and cheerful pre-books that are sometimes sent out for review, which often just have a cover quickly knocked together before the real one comes out. But, no, it’s the real thing.
In many ways this would be better positioned (if you lost the ghastly second person introductions and tuned it a little) as a children’s book, where it would really have some legs. There is, you see, nothing wrong with the content, it just doesn’t really work for an adult reader. Give it some good illustrations and much of what is in there would work excellently as a competitor to Horrid Science. Bentley is clearly enthusiastic about his science and communicates that well – but this just doesn’t work for me as an adult popular science book.
Review by Brian Clegg
I have just finished reading the book and I thought it was just wonderful. I read the books where Terry Pratchett collaborated with popular science writers and hated them – awful stories compared to the normal Pratchett books and tedious science. But in Bentley’s book I liked the stories about accidents which made the science really stay with me and brought the explanations into my head at different times of the day when I got reminded of similar things that happened to me. The book is The Undercover Scientist, Investigating Mishaps of Everyday Life so that’s why mishaps are described at the start. They were great! Made me want to keep reading: a real page-turner. I don’t find the “normal” popular science books very interesting – as far as I can see they are just full of opinions and not real science. If I want opinions can I listen to the ladies gossip on the bus. This book used real science and explained everything to me and made the everyday truly fascinating. For the first time in my life I actually feel as though I understand the world around me better: I can imagine what atoms and molecules are doing and why things behave like they do and that feeling is just wonderful for a middle-aged woman who never any excitement from science at school. The book is written in super clear language in an entertaining way, and the cover is friendly and nice.
The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.
Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.
May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…
Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.
If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …
Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.
The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad – not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…