Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Froth – Mark Denny ***

This is, without doubt, one of the most curious popular science books I’ve ever read. Subtitled ‘the science of beer’, it sort of does what it says on the tin (or, rather, the bottle), but in the strangest way. I make no secret of the fact that I like beer (see this entry from my blog), so I opened the book with eager anticipation, and to begin with things went quite smoothly (a bit like some pints of beer). In the introduction and first chapter, Denny explains that he’s a physicist and home brewer, and proceeds to give us a very effective potted history of the making of beer in which I learned a lot.
Then, in the second chapter, things start going downhill. He tells us how to make beer. I don’t want to make beer. I want to learn about it, yes. I want to drink it, certainly. But I can’t be bothered with making the stuff. I skipped through that chapter, hoping to get back to the real thing… but then he goes all physics textbook on us. The remaining four chapters: Yeast Population Dynamics, Brewing Thermodynamics, Bubbles and Fluid Flow do contain some interesting snippets – particularly the chapter on beer bubbles (though this has been done better elsewhere) – but there’s way too much technical content for a popular science book.
The chapters are littered with equations and chemical formulae. I don’t particularly subscribe to the infamous advice given Stephen Hawking that every equation halves the readership, but if you are going to use equations in a popular science book, they need to be surrounded by more meat in the sense of historical and personal context, descriptive narrative and so on. This was all bone and gristle, sadly just like a textbook, and really not possible to recommend to anyone without a science degree or equivalent.
It’s a shame because it started off well. Admittedly, the first chapter is over-jokey, with an irritating little ‘intermission’ featuring a fable about someone drinking lots of gassy mass-produced beer and exploding, yet it is still readable and informative. The second chapter is unlikely to attract anyone but a beginner home brewer, while the rest just doesn’t work in the arena of popular science.
A real disappointment.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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