Skip to main content

The Big Necessity – Rose George ****

Strictly, this book shouldn’t be here at all as there’s not a lot of science in it – but taking the original, wider definition of scientia, I certainly feel that I gained a fair amount of knowledge from Rose George’s excellent book, on a subject that certainly needs more exposure than it usually gets – the essential job of dealing with human waste.
Of course there is a lot of science in the subject, but George’s book concentrates on the practical – it’s more about the engineering and sociology than the pure science. She’s at her best when describing excursions down the sewers with the men who work there, or venturing into water treatment plants.
At the heart of the book is the horrendous statistic that 2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation – not even a trench latrine – terrible because there’s no point giving access to clean water if someone can’t get away from their faeces. Equally fascinating to western eyes was the amazing story of the Japanese ‘high function’ toilet with seated seat and wash and dry features.
If I have a complaint it’s that there was a bit too much on China and Africa, and that George over-emphasizes the solids. She spends ages on the flush toilet, but hardly mentions urinals – perhaps because she hasn’t been exposed to them in all their wondrous variety. This combination of little problems means surprisingly (given she apparently wrote the book there) she doesn’t mention France, with it’s slowly dying penchant for stand-up/squat toilets, and its lack of concern about screening urinals from view. We read a lot about the lack of cubicle doors in China, but nothing about a European nation that thinks nothing of sticking a urinal unshielded on the outside of a beach building.
Even so, it’s an excellent read with surprises at every turn – or should that be in every U-bend?
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

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 …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…