Skip to main content

Seeing Through Illusions – Richard Gregory ***

Oxford University Press has a long and distinguished history of producing popular science books that sound as if they are going to be brilliant, but turn out to disappoint. Often this is because the author is a scientist who knows his subject, but doesn’t really know how to communicate it to the general reader. Seeing Through Illusions is a classic case of this phenomenon. The premise is superb. Using optical illusions and what they reveal to explore the workings of human sight and perception. But sadly it is a wasted opportunity.
It’s revealing that the first actual optical illusion in the book doesn’t come to the colour plates have way through. There’s page after page of context and explanation without ever showing us an optical illusion – the reader is desperately wanting to see one and we just keep getting comments on them without the actual things. When they do crop up they are little more than listed, with plenty of jargon but little relevance to the structure of the text.
It would have been so much better to have built the structure around the illusions, allowing them to gradually reveal the theory and ideas, rather than piling in all the theory in text form first, then finally throwing in illusions.
A few specific issues. Richard Gregory can be a bit fuzzy when off his subject. He tells us that Einstein won his Nobel Prize for his paper on Brownian motion – in fact it was his paper on the photoelectric effect that won him the prize. And the text is often overladen with jargon. Take this caption for an illusion: ‘Ponzo illusion. The basic perspective illusion. The upper horizontal line appears expanded by constancy scaling, normally compensating shrinking of the retinol (sic) image with increased distance.’ Is that clear?
Just occasionally there are moments of real interest where something is revealed about the way our complex visual systems fool us in the way they produce an apparent image of what we see. But this could have been an absolutely wonderful book, and it is, in practice, hard to recommend it for the general reader. What a pity.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Pocket Einstein: 10 Short Lessons in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics - Peter Bentley ****

Another handsome little hardback in the '10 short lessons' format that manages to pack in a surprising amount of information. AI is a subject where it's easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for the wonders of the subject, so we end up with much marvelling about too little substance - a trait that has dogged the AI profession leading a couple of 'winters' where it over-promised and under-delivered. Thankfully, Peter Bentley largely avoids this trap. Although he is certainly broadly positive about the topic, he does make some of the shortcomings clear.

The book is genuinely interesting and carries the reader along with a light touch that never betrays the author's academic background - it is a heartfelt compliment that this is a book by a professor that feels like it was written by a science writer. We get a good mix of the history with a brief explanation of how the technology works and a broad exploration of applications, both what has already been achieved …

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…