Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …