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30 Second Theories – Paul Parsons (Ed.) ***

Books are pretty much of a muchness physically, so it’s really nice when a publisher comes up with something different, as is the case with 30 Second Theories. It’s shaped like a small coffee table book, and the dustcoverless outer cover is a textured brown stuff that makes this elegant hardback feel rather special. Inside, glossy pages pit a page of text against a full page of illustration – a sort of adult Dorling Kindersley format, except the pictures, though artistic, rarely convey a lot of information, which makes them a bit of a waste of space.
The challenging task the book sets out to fill is to cover all of science in 50 snippets that can be read in 30 seconds each. There are some worries about this format. One is that it just isn’t practical to do anything useful in that amount of text. My pocket Instant Egghead Physics covers physics alone in 100 rather longer snippets – to do the whole of science in 50 seems an unlikely possibility. There’s also the value for money argument. 50 lots of 30 seconds is 25 minutes. Is £12.99 an acceptable price for 25 minutes of reading?
When we get into the meat of it, there’s certainly some good stuff in here. The articles are written by a mix of authors, some better than others at capturing a subject in a few lines. The lesser contributions are vague woffly summaries, but some of the authors do really manage to raise interest in a topic – only, of course to leave you wanting a lot more. I think what would have transformed this book is if each page, as well as the totally useless snippets of information like dates of birth of key figures, also listed three or four books that concentrated on the specific topic, so someone interested could get into more depth, using this book as a taster. (In fact the publisher still could do this on a website, so you could click through and buy the other books. They would have to be brave enough to recommend other publishers’ books, but it would be really worthwhile.)
That way, if entanglement took your fancy (and it should), you could be pointed to my book The God Effect, or if you wanted to find out more about the woeful unscientific nature of complimentary and alternative medicine, you could be referred to Singh and Ernst’s excellent Trick or Treatment.
Mentioning complimentary and alternative medicine highlights one of the oddities of the book. There are at least two of the 50 articles on something that isn’t really science at all – the medicine one, which while mildly disparaging really doesn’t reflect how poor the basis of these treatments is – and one on psychoanalysis, which has pretty widely been discredited as any form of science. It’s doubly weird that Freud appears in one of the handful of biographies of key figures (just 7 in total). He wasn’t a scientist at all, and has contributed practically nothing of value. Almost as odd is having a biography of James Lovelock – definitely a scientist, but hardly in the Newton and Einstein class. This is just strange.
Occasionally the brevity required means that the articles comes close to not really getting it right. Some science simply can’t be described in this length of piece, and the contraction can only lead to confusion. There’s also the odd case where the illustration (I wonder who came up with the content of these?) simply doesn’t reflect reality. For instance, the illustration for natural selection describes it as a ‘knock-out punch for religion.’ Hardly. Some of the illustrations had if anything a negative benefit.
Overall, then, a curate’s egg. It’s a noble venture, and could have worked with a bit more content and recommended books for each topic. But as it stands I really can’t see who is going to benefit from it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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