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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.
It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.
At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…
by Brian Clegg There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things.
An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …
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