Monday, 29 September 2008

Coral – Steve Jones ***

I was thrown off kilter from the start by the quote on the front of this book. Jones is the Alan Bennett of science writing. What could this possibly mean? That he writes with a Yorkshire accent? That he has tendency to ruminative monologues? That he can be very funny and poignant at the same time? None of these really seemed to apply. In the end, all I could think of was that Bennett is the voice of the spoken word Winnie the Pooh books, and Steve Jones sometimes comes across a bit like Eeyore.
When you get past the cover, you discover a subject that has just been crying out for good popular science coverage. Just as The Buzz About Bees transformed our view of the humble bee, here was a chance to reveal the sheer depth, complexity and interest of corals. And to an extent the book does it. There’s a lot to enjoy and be amazed by – but it’s all rather summary, because it only comprises about half the content of the book, the rest being huge asides that meander off on loosely related topics. So, for instance, there’s a great swathe of information about cancer, sparked off by the ‘ageless’ nature of hydra cells. This travels too far away from the core topic – it’s fine to have brief asides, but if I’d wanted a book about cancer, I would have got one.
The other danger in the asides is that Jones is straying from his field of expertise, and occasionally it shows. At one point he comments that glass is a liquid (at room temperature, I presume). I have to confess to repeating this old chestnut myself in one of my early books, but this is no longer thought to be the case. (It used to be argued that the liquid nature could be seen in very old window panes, as they tend to be thicker towards the bottom, caused, it was thought, by the glass running down very, very slowly. Actually they are like that because medieval glaziers couldn’t make glass of a consistent thickness, so they put the thicker part of the sheet at the bottom, making the pane more stable.) Also, unless I’m misreading his text, he seems to repeat the climate change myth that global warming in the interglacial periods was caused by rising carbon dioxide levels, rather than the correct analysis that rising carbon dioxide levels were caused by the warming (a totally different mechanism to modern manmade warming).
I’ll finish off with artistic symmetry by checking out another quote from the cover. It is surprising, exciting and so much more interesting than the mechanical simplification that usually passes for popular science. Leaving aside the sheer affront to so many wonderful popular science writers (mechanical simplification is more, in my experience, the lifeblood of newspaper book reviewers), it’s just not true. Jones can write well, but sometimes his prose is stodgy, and it’s not uncommon to have to read a sentence two or three times to get the meaning. Not because it’s too technical, but because the English is too tangled.
So, a real curate’s egg. A fascinating subject, but not enough on the core topic with too devoted to asides that travel far from the subject.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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