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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…