Skip to main content

Beware Invisible Cows – Andy Martin ***

This is a remarkable book, taking a very original approach to popular science that has the potential to be great – and an equal potential to be dire. It’s what I’d define as the first Impressionist popular science book (with the possible exception of the disastrous Everything and More by David Foster Wallace).
Just as the Impressionists in the art world moved away from a literal and accurate reflection of what was seen, instead trying to portray the impact of the visual on the senses, Andy Martin’s meandering book is much more about how the science he discovers along the way in his attempt to search for ‘the source of the universe’ impacts him, than about the science itself.
The result has mixed value. Martin visits locations like the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the LIGO gravitational wave observatory in Washington state – and there gives us a sub-Bill Bryson guided tour and interaction with some of the scientists he meets, and this can be quite interesting. It just hadn’t occurred to me that at 14,000 feet, working on the Keck Observatory means dealing with altitude problems (though most of the scientists work from remote stations without the need to undergo the rigours of high altitude). But at other times, Martin rambles on about things that really are of no interest.
Occasionally he seems not to get the point. This is most obvious when he refers to the reflection in a mirror. He goes on (and on) and about left and right being reversed. ‘This is the inescapable law of left-right reversal, built into the very process of reflection,’ he says. Well, no, it isn’t. Just a moment’s thought would show that there is nothing about reflection that inherently requires a left-right reversal (as opposed to top-bottom, for example). What in fact happens in a mirror is back-front reversal. It turns things inside out like a rubber mould. It’s just our interpretation of what is front and back, left and right, that makes us interpret the image the way we do.
There’s also some pretty ropy stuff about quantum entanglement, where we get the impression that his physicist brother is attempting to build an instantaneous communicator, only after the failure of which does he realize it’s not possible. Sadly this has been common knowledge in the field for a long time – the whole story feels like a myth. (For a more effective investigation of entanglement, see my book The God Effect.)
Overall, I found Beware Invisible Cows frustrating and often verging on the unreadable. The problem with interpreting the science through Andy Martin’s life is you have to be interested in Andy Martin – and I’m not. From my own viewpoint, I couldn’t give the book more than a two star rating, but I’ve actually rated it three as I believe that some people will enjoy the florid writing style and the endless deviations into personal history.
It’s a novel, and interesting attempt – but it’s not for me.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…